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Book Forum: FICTION   |    
A Multitude of Sins
PETER D. KRAMER, M.D.
Am J Psychiatry 2002;159:2121-2122. doi:10.1176/appi.ajp.159.12.2121
View Author and Article Information
Providence, R.I.

By Richard Ford. New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 2002, 286 pp., $25.00.

Richard Ford is on the list of writers whose books I read as they are published, regardless of reviews. To have such a list is, I think, a useful discipline. We ought to trust writers more than we trust critics, especially at a moment when the field of reviewing is weak—lacking in figures like Edmund Wilson, Alfred Kazin, Lionel Trilling, and others who reshaped the American literary sensibility at midcentury. Perhaps readers of any era would do well to give the benefit of the doubt to a writer who has moved or amazed them.

Ford became a literary cult figure in the mid-1980s with the novel The Sportswriter(1) and the short story collection Rock Springs(2). Both books had a toughness and precision fellow writers admired and a masculine, fatalistic stance that put Ford in a tradition stretching back through Raymond Carver to Hemingway. Writers in that mold can burn out young. Ford only got better. Independence Day(3), the sequel to The Sportswriter, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1996.

But Ford’s current short story collection, A Multitude of Sins, was greeted with devastating reviews. One critic found the characters to be self-pitying, aimless, and pretentious. Another complained that the stories begin predictably with "Awkward Pangs of Simmering Dissatisfaction" and end predictably with "Mundane Epiphanies." The same reviewer took Multitude’s appearance as occasion to take a sly shot at the celebrated novels—a move that reassured me, since I have no doubt about those books.

In the event, I found the new Ford stories full of touches to admire and satisfying overall. They have the quality John Gardner called "mastery." From the first sentence, readers know they are in good hands.

"Privacy" begins, "This was at a time when my marriage was still happy." If that opening looks too easy, too Richard Ford in its compactness, then try this one, from "Under the Radar": "On the drive over to the Nicholsons’ for dinner—their first in some time—Marjorie Reeves told her husband, Steven Reeves, that she had had an affair with George Nicholson (their host) a year ago, but that it was all over with now and she hoped he—Steven—would not be mad about it and could go on with life."

No teacher would accept that construction from a beginning writer, the "had had," the four em dashes encasing a parenthesis, the double repetition of the last names, and then a pronoun with an ambiguous referent, requiring a repetition of a first name. But Ford makes the awkwardness work for him. Through the indirect discourse, we see both the wife, intent on controlling through reasonableness, and the marriage, turned overly formal. Omit the second "Reeves" and the effect evaporates. Ford’s opening sentence is a short story; it wants to uncoil. Perhaps there is even a literary echo of Raymond Carver’s Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?(4). Ford’s bourgeois repetition stands in contrast to Carver’s working-class version; each carries its own nuanced irony.

Reviewers complained that Ford’s stories lack the specificity of place evident in Rock Springs and the scope of the novels. The first charge strikes me as just wrong. Ford is writing about the lower echelon of the upper middle class, and he has found its denizens in their haunts: apartments in gentrified warehouse districts, hotels in the heart of big cities, bed and breakfast establishments in small Maine towns.

As for breadth, it is true that the book deals (at the first level) with a single sin, adultery, as it is played out in empty marriages. But so do Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina. It is the writer’s privilege to delve. Hemingway began narrow, in Men Without Women.

There is a wonderful matter-of-factness to Ford’s stories. Wives work at forgiving errant husbands and, in the process, discover that the marriage is dead. Or the reverse—that marriage has its limitations, and this man will do. These are the decisions our patients live with. Actually, we all live with them. At the heart of this collection is a challenge to the assumption that our worth arises from our commitment, in relationships. What of Camus’s Mersault, in The Stranger? Is he not a modern man? Adultery does contain a multitude of sins, and especially the sin of not caring.

Even the critical reviewers found these stories to be well crafted and elegantly written. Beyond that, of course, any evaluation is a matter of taste. (British reviewers praised the collection.) My impression is that the response in the United States to A Multitude of Sins was less a commentary on the book than an announcement of a shift in the prevailing aesthetic. The alienated man is out. To the new critical eye, he appears cruel, foolish, and narcissistic. Devotion is in. That change explains the enthusiastic reception of Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections(5), dull in its sarcasm, to my reading, but celebratory of flawed family life.

I have always been a fan of the alienated masculine novel, and here I include works by Henry Miller, Norman Mailer, James Salter, and Tom McGuane. Some of the worst-reviewed Philip Roth novels, I mean the sexually aggressive ones, strike me as the best. It’s not that the perspective in these books is admirable—it can be misogynistic—but it represents a true and uncomfortable element in ordinary experience. Forthrightness and rebelliousness characterize this tradition, which remains compelling despite its evident flaws.

Ford is at the quiet end of this segment of the literary spectrum. You don’t have to apologize for liking his work. Often, he gets things just right. No revisionism, please. Independence Day is the premier novel of its decade. And A Multitude of Sins is a strong showing.

Ford R: The Sportswriter. New York, Random House, 1998
 
Ford R: Rock Springs: Stories. New York, Vintage Books, 1996
 
Ford R: Independence Day. New Orleans, BE Trice, 1995
 
Carver R: Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? New York, McGraw-Hill, 1976
 
Franzen J: The Corrections: A Novel. New York, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2001
 
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References

Ford R: The Sportswriter. New York, Random House, 1998
 
Ford R: Rock Springs: Stories. New York, Vintage Books, 1996
 
Ford R: Independence Day. New Orleans, BE Trice, 1995
 
Carver R: Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? New York, McGraw-Hill, 1976
 
Franzen J: The Corrections: A Novel. New York, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2001
 
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