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A Multitude Of Sins (2003)

A Multitude of Sins (2003)

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3.71 of 5 Votes: 4
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037572656X (ISBN13: 9780375726569)

About book A Multitude Of Sins (2003) is new again in 'Sins'Ford rescues an old subject from the jaws of clicheJenny Shank, Special to the NewsPublished February 1, 2002 at midnightIn many ways, the literature of adultery hit its peak with Anna Karenina and went downhill from there, though that hasn't stopped dozens of American writers from building their careers on the exploration of violations of the Seventh Commandment. Indeed, a whole generation of writers, headed by the towering and much-Pulitzered triumvirate of John Updike, Phillip Roth, and Richard Ford, has focused intently on adultery in its fiction.It was perhaps easier to create a potent story about this topic when Gustave Flaubert, Thomas Hardy and Leo Tolstoy were writing their great adultery narratives. The stakes were grave then, and in choosing to be faithful to their spouses or not, the characters in these books were making the very choice between heaven and hell. These writers took such choices absolutely seriously, focusing on adultery not to titillate but to make moral sparks fly, and the consequence was that their books were initially banned and decried nearly as often as they were praised.Literary taboos gradually loosened, of course, and then the '60s happened. From that time on, adultery became increasingly more common in fiction, to such an extent that now it's more surprising to encounter a story in The New Yorker about a married couple that doesn't cheat on each other than about one that does.So it's difficult, this late in history, to write about adultery in a fresh way, as its shock value has diminished, and it's certainly difficult to write about it with the degree of moral heft and substance that has illustrious precedence in the genre. But in his new collection of short stories, A Multitude of Sins, Ford does a fine job of it.Each story in A Multitude of Sins has to do with adultery, though each leads its characters to a distinct moral precipice, and Ford creates such an array of characters, settings and situations that the topic doesn't get dull. A mark of the freshness of Ford's approach is that he mercifully didn't write any stories about young, nubile college girls sleeping with wizened brainiac professors. The characters in Ford's stories are hardly the stuff of fantasy -- they have hair that "tended to dry unruliness" or that is "thinning a little in front," and one poor guy has "enormous feet with their giant gray toenails hard as tungsten."The humanity of Ford's characters draws you toward them, even as their actions repel. Ford makes the reader care about people who are doing bad, bad things, even if you'd never want to actually meet them for fear they'd do these things to you.The highlight of the collection is Calling, the story of a New Orleans boy whose father abandoned him and his mother for his rich, gay lover in St. Louis. The father, Boatwright McKendall, returns to take his son duck hunting for a day. McKendall is an amusing dandy to watch from the sidelines, where we're free from the heartache he causes his family. He gives sage Oscar Wilde-esque advice to his son, such as: "The world wants to operate on looks. It only uses brains if looks aren't available."McKendall sends a cab instead of picking up his son for hunting and shows up drunk at the pier. McKendall explains, "I couldn't locate my proper hunting attire," and wears instead "a tuxedo with a pink shirt, a bright-red bow tie and a pink carnation." It's what some have called an Irish moment, painfully funny and sad at the same time.The son narrates all this from many years hence, after his mother and father have died. Reflecting on his father, he makes an observation that encapsulates all the stories in this collection: "My father did only what pleased him, and believed that doing so permitted others the equal freedom to do what they wanted. Only that isn't how the world works, as my mother's life and mine were living proof. Other people affect you. It's really no more complicated than that."But the effects people's choices have on others can be extremely complicated, as Ford demonstrates in other stories in A Multitude of Sins. In Puppy, a pack of sullen Goth kids leave an angry puppy in the yard of a rich New Orleans couple, and the couple's decisions about how to get rid of the dog are a coded way of expressing to each other undiscussed facets of their marriage -- yes, you guessed it, one of them has had an affair.In Under the Radar, the shortest, tightest, most dramatic story in the collection, a ditsy wife tells her husband that she's had an affair with the host of the party they're driving to, and two shocking brutalities result.In Creche, Faith, a successful Hollywood lawyer, treats her mother, her sister's husband, Roger, and his two children to a Christmas stay at a Michigan ski resort. The missing sister is in rehab and has treated her family horribly, partying, doing drugs and taking up with a biker boyfriend who's now incarcerated. On top of that, Faith's mother has become grossly obese, and Roger is lecherous and unlikable. Still, Faith tries to put the best face on things and contemplates taking her nieces with her to live in California.Ford does an excellent job of capturing the sordid truth that keeps coming out from under the veneer of holiday cheer that Faith tries to maintain with this description of the dining hall at the lodge: "In a room that can conveniently hold five hundred souls, there are perhaps fifteen scattered diners. No one is eating family style, only solos and twos. Young lodge employees in paper caps wait dismally behind the long smorgasbord steam table. Metal heat lamps with orange beams are steadily overcooking the prime rib, of which Roger has taken a goodly portion."While there are plenty of moments of excellent writing like this in A Multitude Of Sins, there are also missteps. Ford is sometimes prone to stilted phrasing, as in this sentence from Quality Time: "He'd lately realized he'd been away too long, had lost touch with things American."Later in the same story, which is about an international journalist who's lecturing in Chicago for a few months and the affair he starts with a married, middle-aged woman, Ford writes, "He knew, of course, that when women came to lectures, they came wanting something -- conceivably something innocent -- but something, always."Just what is that supposed to mean? That women never come to lectures just to learn from them as men do? Ford does nothing to indicate that the character thinking this is supposed to be considered repugnant, so with that sentence he comes perilously close to introducing the professor-chasing-college-girl trope.Another drawback of Ford's consistent focus on adultery is that toward the end of the book, where there's a story that doesn't mention an affair until five pages in, it's hard to pay attention to what's going on, because the reader thinks, "OK, where is it? Who did it this time?"Still, by exploring the confrontations that result from affairs and by introducing grave consequences that stem from even the most casual extramarital fling in A Multitude of Sins, Ford has returned high seriousness and originality to a topic that had threatened to become banal window dressing in contemporary fiction. His characters are, for the most part, more Karenina than sorority girl, and the stories that house them are consequently well worth reading.

Morality PlayAdultery is wrong. Even if there is no James M. Cain Old Testament wrath of God - save for the final tale, 'Abyss' - Ford uses his obvious gift to point out the obvious. Having read most of his novels, I was prepared to love this collection of short stories. I found them too alike and predictable in outcomes.Ford is a very skilled writer in the Updike tradition - he understands Middle Americans and writes with insight snd skill about their lives. But whatever the set up, the outcome is pretty much pre-determined. From the very short - 'Privacy' - to the substantial - 'Abyss' - Ford makes it clear what he thinks. Adultery is driven by illusion - the grass is greener - and those who pursue its momentary pleasures come crashing down to Earth.This is what literally happens in the longest - and clearly most revealing of the tales told in 'Abyss'. Two Real Estate agents fall in lust, have a drawn out set of trysts which results in a planned excursion to Phoenix where one of them does not rise from the ashes, but falls into the Grand Canyon by 'accident'. Like the rest of this volume, it is a very readable but not terribly surprising tale. The couple are young, attractive, driven and overwhelmed by desire. As they begin their drive to the canyon, they lose their lust, and the woman (Frances) begins to see her lover more clearly for what he is and is not. As the fog lifts, so does her desire, and her shame comes out to play. That it all ends in disaster is very biblical - although she, not the man, pays the ultimate price.While one appreciates Ford's skills, these tales are difficult to love - with the possible exception of 'Puppy.'

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These are dreary, mean spirited and cynical stories. If at any moment the reader might imagine that a character in one of these stories has a redeeming trait, the writer may be relied on to prick the balloon, so to speak. Sex is presented as a kind of febrile, nervous twitch or compulsion, it is described without enthusiasm and without care. The writing is faintly cynical, faintly sinister, faintly threatening but the stories never make an impact or statement or impression which goes beyond "faintly" anything. To be fair, the writer is an acute observor, but it is as observor of the second rate and mundane that he excels, not that he attempts to excel in anything else, for this is a writer well aware of his limitations. If the word were not too strong for stories ultimately so bland, I would say that the writer is obscene, in the very real sense of the word, for he enjoys sniffing the dirt of second rate second class American life. There is talent here though (hence not just one star): it takes talent to invert sentimentality about puppies into an unwholesome tale of an unlucky and unlovable puppy, whose fate is shrugged off at the end of the story. In "Creche", the entire tawdriness of middle class Christmas is turned on its head and becomes absurd, fake and threatening. Here, as an illustration of style and content, is how one of these wretched stories begins: "Two weeks before the Phoenix sales conference, Frances Bilandic and Howard Cameron drove from home-in Willamantic and Pawcatuck-met at the Olive Garden in Mystic and talked things over one more time, touching fingertips nervously across the Formica tabletop. Then they each went to the rest room and made a private, lying cell phone call to account for their whereabouts during the next few hours." It is all there, the nicely observed detail, the superfiically humourous but in truth deeply embittered depiction of a mediocre situation, featuring mediocre characters, (why readers should be interested in the fate of such mediocrities I do not understand) the precision of palce where place is irrelevant because everywhere in America looks like everywhere else and the tendency, so typically American, to think that imitation can ever be emulation. Richard Ford is a master of portraying fake people in fake resorts and hotels and if you want to reveal these exposures of the seemy truth behind the publicity scam that is the USA, then you will enjoy all this. I did not, but yes two stars and not one, because this writer is skilled in his scabrous labours.

Ford is best known for the Frank Bascombe tetralogy, but has enjoyed a justly deserved reputation for his short fiction as well. His earlier collection (Rock Springs) is a minor classic: concise, authentic, and with a qualified sense of optimism. I've known people who can quote whole paragraphs from the collection verbatim (usually from the story 'Fireworks', for some reason).This volume shows him moving from blue-collar to white collar lives. Perhaps slicker, less earnest than the earlier work, they involve you in all the old ways. Despite the weak opener and the under-achieving 'Under the Radar', the other tales dazzle, and none more so than the novella 'Abyss'. Oddly, this is the only story that hasn't seen magazine publication, apparently due to an inability between Ford and a New Yorker editor - let's call him 'Will Wuford' - to agree on cuts in length. Worth your attention.
—Ryan Williams

Nine stories about the same sin. You can probably find most of them in online archives for the New Yorker and Granta. My favorites were "Abyss" (the only one not previously published in a magazine), "Quality Time", "Calling", and "Dominion". The perspectives of the characters/narrators are diverse enough (even if the characters tend to lack diversity) to prevent the stories from feeling redundant or tedious. Readers may be forgiven for leaving the collection under the impression that adultery is a white person problem.

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