A Multitude of Virtues:
A brief essay about A Multitude of Sins, by Richard Ford
While the stories contained in Richard Ford’s third collection, A Multitude of Sins (London: Harvill, 2001), revisit themes and situations found in the previous two, their treatment shows much development. One notes that Ford is applying to the short story form the lessons he learned in the Frank Bascombe novels, and that he has outlived his companionship with Carver and Wolff. The collections show deep psychological insight worked into tales of the utmost simplicity: in ‘Privacy’ the narrator is aroused by the sight of a woman undressing in the window opposite his own, until he realises that she is old; in ‘Reunion’ he has a brief, embarrassing encounter with the man he cuckolded some years ago.
One also finds a linking theme in this collection, nascent in these opening stories and fully developed in ‘Abyss,’ the last. Ford's heroes are faced with difficult choices of moral engagement and loyalty. Wales, the protagonist of ‘Quality Time’ witnesses a road death in the rush hour traffic, but drives away, and does not even tell his mistress how the incident has distressed him. In ‘Abyss,’ a man and a woman, both married, decide to visit the Grand Canyon together while at a business conference and on Company time. The woman falls over the edge of the canyon and is killed, and the man must choose whether to drive back to the conference without saying anything, or to report the incident and suffer the consequences to his marriage and career. As a road story, ‘Abyss’ echoes his earlier stories, ‘Rock Springs’ and ‘Jealous,’ and Ford is still concerned by the moral and emotional abyss which afflicts American life, and over which the hero’s decision triumphs.
One story is less successful. ‘Calling’ revisits the relationship between estranged father and son which Ford has already examined many times, and which now seems stale. But the stories are a triumph of the form, subtle, simple and profoundly moving, and a significant development of his earlier work. They are pieces I myself can only love and aspire to.