There’s a low-lying mist of ennui seeping out of fissures in Louisiana and Maine, even Paris and Dublin. And while it threatens to envelop the prosperous men and women of Richard Ford’s short story collection, “Sorry for Your Trouble,” they accept, even relish, their world-weary situations. They’re smart and well established and in their 50s, facing the usual midlife crises — divorce, death, grief. Is it their age group, or is it simply the Age that explains their bewildered apathy?
They’ve gone to the best schools, but they can’t quite get the hang of everyday Being. In “The Run of Yourself,” one of the book’s two novellas, a New Orleans “white shoe” barrister named Peter Boyce, recovering from his wife’s suicide, has to rely on a lowly bystander in a Maine resort village to explain where it’s all going: “Once the fireworks get over,” she says, “then life begins, I guess.”
These nine stories flirt with philosophical speculation, their intricacies delivered with cunning humor and an “imperturbable ease of manner,” as the critic Lubbock once said of Tolstoy. They’re remote from the other end of America’s economic spectrum represented in Ford’s first compilation, “Rock Springs” (1987), which was set in the rural switchbacks of Montana and Wyoming and populated with petty thieves and the desolate poor. For the affluent crowd in “Sorry for Your Trouble,” it’s as if the excesses of 21st century privilege and accelerating inequality have presented them with the luxury of high ambivalence. This can be both disturbing and amusing.
Take “Happy,” a mild social satire of upmarket artistic cons. A few wealthy authors have organized a wake to celebrate their “colorful” Irish-born editor, whose true talent lay in “turning so-so literary novels into causes célèbres.” Enter his not-so-very-welcome widow, Bobbi “Happy” Kamper, a conceptual artist who “achieved, in the ‘80s and ‘90s, a reputation for large, kinetic, solar-powered, outdoor metal and glass ‘installations’ that mimicked the wheeling of the constellations and ‘troped’ different directions in different seasons.”
The narratives avoid spirituality, although Ford deploys a vaguely Taoist give-and-take, embracing the fluctuations of uncertainty and its opposite. Consider “Jimmy Green — 1992,” a sketch that occurs on the eve of the Clinton/Bush election. A disgraced former mayor of Cadmus, Mississippi, Jimmy lands on the sidewalk outside of the American Bar in Paris, flattened by a Young Republican bully wearing stars-and-stripes suspenders. And yet, “All didn’t have to be ruined,” he thinks. “Better was possible … Was that what optimism meant? Or was it pessimism?”
Several stories in “Sorry for Your Trouble” feature attorneys-at-law. Their legal thematic reinforces Ford’s metaphysical intent. “We try to avoid outcomes if we can,” says one, but, in case of their necessity, says another, lawyers are in the world “to assign the best consequences to life’s small adjustments.”
In “Nothing to Declare,” Sandy McGuinness specializes in “Admiralty law” at a New Orleans’ “Hibernian firm.” When he encounters a college girl friend from decades ago, he remembers that the two had little in common other than their pretentious self-regard. As they conduct a walkabout in the French Quarter, Sandy muses on his phantom father, who has recently become “defascinated” with life in the port city.
Whatever Sandy’s own dissatisfactions may be, he realizes that he has a reasonably happy family life, nourished by memories of the Mississippi River, to which the incompatible couple make their final approach. “They were at the great river now, where the air expanded and went outward, floated up and away in a limitless moment before returning to the vast, curving, mythical, lusterless flood.”
As a teenager in 1961, Richard Ford was allowed to sit on Howlin’ Wolf’s amplifier during a performance in Oxford, an epiphany he survived. He grew up in Jackson, Mississippi, a neighbor of Eudora Welty, acknowledged as a sturdy, lifelong influence. If he’s to be considered a Southern author, he’s one who doesn’t necessarily want to write about the South. When he does, as in the quasi-autobiographical, gemlike “Displaced,” Ford states that he really wants it to seem like it isn’t in “the South.”
A first-person narrative set in the early ‘60a, “Displaced” is the most crucial story of this volume. Henry Harding, a boy of humble origin growing up in Jackson, has recently lost his father, just like the author himself did at that age. Henry’s only friend Niall, with whom he has a same-sex experience, is the son of “displaced” Irish émigrés. Henry is experiencing his own displacement as well, a brutal and confusing circumstance that Ford recounts with unfolding nuance and liquid reversals for which the reader is utterly unprepared:
“When your father dies and you are only 16, many things change. School life changes. You are now the boy whose father is missing. People feel sorry for you, but they also devalue you, even resent you — for what, you’re not sure. The air around you is different. Once that air contained you fully … You are alone in a way that is so many-sided there is not a word for it. Attempts to find the word leave you confused — since that confusion is not altogether unwanted or unliked.”
Obviously, this is extraordinary.
“Sorry for Your Trouble” has many such moments that contain nameless moods; for them, words like ennui, apathy and ambivalence are insufficient. With their cool melancholia rendered in muted tempera, these stories, taken as a whole, are parables of existential despair, but, as should be evident from Henry’s reminiscence in “Displaced,” Richard Ford remains an author hostage to the mysterious simplicities of emotional sentiment, commendably so.
by Richard Ford
272 pages, $27.99
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