The cheating kind

In the fictional universe of Richard Ford's A Multitude of Sins, adultery is the emotional equivalent of the Big Bang — its origins aren't nearly as important as its consequences. Ford uses the novella and nine short stories within his intriguing new collection to plot the trajectory of adulterous relationships, from the empty lust of a fading tryst to the emotional scars that remain years after an affair dies. His minor variations on a familiar theme form what the author aptly described in a recent phone interview as "a constellation of human behavior."

These stories, Ford suggests, revolve around a set of actions known as adultery, but simply identifying them as adulterous is not enough. "[I]n the general context of adultery," he says, "are all manner of ways that we let each other down, betray each other, and fail each other. . . . Fiction is quite well suited to isolate and identify these failures."

Throughout A Multitude of Sins, the author highlights his characters' shortcomings by isolating the characters themselves. In "Privacy," the short tale that kicks off the collection, a struggling writer wraps himself in a blanket and watches from his dark apartment as a woman undresses in her own apartment down the street, unwittingly starring in the voyeur's nighttime theater. A Mercedes station wagon contains both the confession of adultery and the rage following the confession in "Under the Radar." The estranged Maryland couple in "Charity" travels to Maine to see if it is possible to start a new life together in a new state. And in "Abyss," the excellent novella that completes the book, hotel rooms, speeding cars, tepees, and the Grand Canyon all become mile markers for the doomed affair of two successful real-estate agents.

Ford acknowledges that these settings may, in part, originate from his personal experiences. "I'm a child of a traveling salesman and the grandchild of people who ran a hotel business," he says. "At an early age, I was . . . observing a lot of human behavior from a car, hotel room, and lobby of a hotel, watching human beings when they are between . . . one place they are departing and another place they are going."

This does not necessarily mean Ford's fiction is completely a product of his environment. Many critics have pointed to the Mississippi-born author's early experiences and his time spent living in New Orleans and Montana (he currently resides in Maine) as influences on his two short-story collections and five novels. The author contends that he would write the same stories no matter where he lived, noting, "I've been writing about affairs between women and men all my life."

"What actually causes [characters] to end up in those places is not the places themselves," he says; the setting is simply a location for the action to unfold. But transitional places such as hotels or cars, he says, offer "an opportunity to isolate [characters] from the normal type of context that would tend to blur their acts." This is particularly evident in "Quality Time," a piece Ford describes as "the most sophisticated story I ever wrote."

At the beginning of the tale, a journalist driving to meet his mistress in a Chicago hotel sees a female pedestrian die after she steps into oncoming traffic. Throughout his evening tryst, he contemplates his astonishment over witnessing the death but never shares it with his lover. The character's rationale for keeping silent, Ford explains, is a desire to avoid appearing either weak or emotionally attached to the affair itself. "These characters seem to be afloat in a moral sense," he says, "wanting the outcome of their actions to remind them of what their life is all about." In the case of "Quality Time," that requires the journalist to refuse to let his dwindling affair define him.

While his characters might be afloat and uncertain about their lives, Ford remains highly committed to his work. Every day, he says, he starts writing between 7:30 and 8 a.m. Each work of fiction begins with a handwritten draft. "It gives me a chance to wander back through it when I type it and see if I can tolerate it," he explains. Recently, however, the stories were far more tolerable than the pain caused by typing them. Ford broke a finger in January while on the losing end of a volleyball game with author Annie Dillard and some other neighbors. "Writers get a [certain] viciousness [when playing sports], and we're not very good athletes so we try to compensate through competitiveness," he jokes.

Ford also hints at a similar level of intensity in his craft. He says that it took him about three and a half years to complete A Multitude of Sins. "There isn't much left around to pick up and start something else with when I'm finished writing fiction," he says. When Ford does return to his work, he says, "it's usually not someplace that far away from where I've been."

This sentiment may explain Ford's recent focus on Frank Bascombe, the main character from The Sportswriter (1986), the book that cemented Ford's literary reputation, and Independence Day (1995), the first book to win both the Pulitzer Prize and the PEN/Faulkner Award. The sportswriter-turned-real-estate agent is slated to return in a novel set during Thanksgiving 2001 tentatively titled Lay of the Land.

The fictional setting of the earlier Bascombe novels — Haddam, N.J. — probably won't be joining him. "I moved him over to the Jersey shore, where I spent four days . . . driving the circuit of the book with a rental car and my tape recorder," Ford says. While the author is fairly certain about Bascombe's new digs, he remains mum about his long-term plans for the character. "I'm interested in writing one more [Bascombe] book," Ford allows; the new novel, he says, will be the character's "third and ideally last gasp."

Anyone familiar with the themes running through Ford's short stories and novels, however, knows that a final decision will more likely come from Frank Bascombe than his creator.

Frank Diller writes for the City Paper, where this review first appeared.

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