- 20 May 20
The Long And The Short Of It
Peter was going on the radio to talk about this book. I like Peter, but I was jealous. The radio producer had no interest in me, despite repeated pleading. I’d keep at him. I sent Peter a message, was it a good book? “It’s good,” he replied. “And that’s despite the fact that nothing happens in any of the stories. I can’t figure out how he does it.”
Richard Ford won both the Pulitzer Prize and the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction with Independence Day in 1995. The novel, a sequel to The Sportswriter, was the second of four books – three novels, one collection of longer short stories, as this collection is – to feature Frank Bascombe as the main protagonist/narrator. Does much happen to Frank? He doesn’t finish the great novel, he has a failed marriage, he suffers through grief, he goes on a trip with his son, he has relationships, he has a mid-life crisis, he tries to sell a few houses, he gets sick, he gets better, he worries about falling over. He’s an everyman, although not everyman has taken a bullet in a lesbian bar.
There’s no sign of Frank in Sorry For Your Trouble, a collection of long (and short) short stories. As with the last Bascombe entry, Let Me Be Frank With You, which is set just after Hurricane Sandy, major events take place just slightly to the left. Bill Clinton is elected president on television in a Paris bar, a woman suffering from cancer watches broadcasts of the Iraq War. This is what Peter was getting at. Nothing happens in Ford’s stories, yet everything does. The life that happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.
In ‘Nothing To Declare’ Sandy McGuinness runs into an old flame in a bar. Thirty-five years earlier they had travelled to Iceland together, where Barbara had stayed behind. Both are now married. Sandy walks her to her hotel, she asks, but – yep - nothing happens. In ‘Happy’ Bobbi’s sometime-lover has died, she goes to stay with friends, they have a few too many, and people say the wrong things. A man in the middle of a divorce catches a ferry in ‘Crossing’. A couple of young lads go to the drive-in, share a bottle and an awkward moment in ‘Displaced’. Widower Peter Boyce makes a cake and lets a young girl at a bit of a loose end stay the night (‘The Run Of Yourself’), Jimmy Green gets a dig in the jaw outside a French pub, and two school girls say goodbye to each other (‘Leaving For Kenosha’). A woman who’s having a very relaxed affair does a bit of shopping (‘Free Day’), and a rich bloke accepts that his ex-wife didn’t want what he wanted in ‘Second Language’.
Nothing going on, and yet, everything’s going on. The brilliance of Ford is that he elevates the everyday into the realm of the seismic, and, somehow, allows us to identify with his series of – mostly - affluent characters. Characters who have the time and the inclination to read Virginia Woolf and Henry James. There are several lawyers, an oil man who has made enough to retire in his forties, and even Jimmy Green, a small town banker who had to leave town after a scandal, still has enough in his pocket to allow him to float around Paris like a lost generation novelist. Is it a case of “Mo Money, Mo Problems’ as The Notorious B.I.G. once informed us? Well no, not really. These are the problems that befall us all, the wealthy just have nicer chairs to sit in while they navel-gaze.
The trick with Ford is that not a word - not a syllable - is wasted or out of place. He’s been compared to Faulkner and, perhaps more accurately, Hemingway before, and those same comparisons can be applied to the work presented here. We’re only a few pages in before we get language like this, “In the sod house, they slept cold together, talked, smoked cigarettes, sat beside the fjord in what little sun was available. He made unsuccessful efforts to fish, while she warmed her legs and read.” This is as Hemingway as it’s possible to get without throwing in a few bullfights or a World War I ambulance. Just like old Papa, Ford is a master of revealing just enough, in his perfectly formed sentences, to allow the reader to fill in the rest on their own.
‘Sorry For Your Trouble’ can also be seen as Ford’s ‘Irish’ book, and the author has spent time here as an Adjunct Professor of Trinity College’s School Of English. I know this for a fact, as he is, so far, the only Pulitzer winner whose laptop I have repaired, and there’s a nicely inscribed copy of The Sportswriter on the shelf in the other room to prove it. He also had a walk-on role in a day of near-suicidal drinking out in Howth, but that is another story for another time. The Welsh women on the ferry in ‘Crossing’ are heading to the Point to see Lionel Ritchie, and, after Eileen has a bit of illicit how’s-your-father out in The Maldron Hotel by the airport, she heads into town for a bit of shopping. Irish Americans turn up everywhere from New Orleans to Maine, Jimmy Green looks for McGee in a Paris bar, Francis Dolan jacks it all in and sails off to Kerry, and there’s an Irish dentist who fancies himself as a story teller. The honours, however, must go Mick Riordan in ‘Happy’, an endearingly take-life-as-it-comes kind of fellow. A shame then that he’s already dead by the time we arrive. “It must be nice to be Irish,” a character opines, walking through New Orleans. “Not to have to care about anything.” It’s grand.
From Jonathan Bell’s realisation that marriage can be a bit tricky, to Peter Boyce missing his wife, to Jimmy Green’s hopes for a bit of amour being dashed by two punches, this is a marvellous, masterly book, which is more than worthy of a place beside Ford’s earlier triumphs. “There’s entirely too much self-congratulation in the world now, just for doing what you’re supposed to do… nothing is worth being proud of” Sandy tells Barbara, and he’s a least partly right, but Ford can be justifiably proud of this collection. I don’t know how he does it either, Peter.