By David Snyder
Richard Ford, the highly acclaimed bard of the angst-ridden American bourgeoisie,
will be at Borders Books and Music to read from and sign his latest collection of
stories, Women With Men (Knopf, $23 hard) on July 1 at 7pm. For those irreverent
few who wish to challenge Ford's reputation, sentence for sentence, as the best writer
at work in this country today (according to Raymond Carver), here are some thoughts
to consider as Ford autographs your personal copy: Richard, about your characters...
how can people who have so much going for them find so much to stress about? And
why do critics and readers seem to love listening to them talking themselves into
and out of varying degrees of WASPish ennui?
July 1, Borders
If you're lucky enough to get an answer from the recent Pulitzer Prize-winner,
he might point you to the first of the book's three long stories, "The Womanizer,"
in which the successful sales rep Martin Austin feels "a despair of something
important in his life having been lost, exterminated by his own doing but also by
fate. What was that something?"
Now that is a question to which almost anyone can relate, regardless of social
standing. When Ford pulls the staid rug of upper middle-class comfort out from under
Martin Austin's feet, the clatter of desperation is audible wherever you are standing.
Austin's trip from the Chicago suburbs to Paris' literary fringe (with a brief stint
in a French jail) is enough to keep even the least sympathetic of Ford's readers
Ford also excels at displacing the well-placed and discombobulating the habitually
combobulated. Women With Men charts the restlessness of two middle-aged men
on the verge of silent despair, and one 17-year-old boy just on the brink of that
verge. Despite (or maybe because of) their nearly perfect homes, wives, and careers,
Martin Austin of "Womanizer" and Charley Matthews of "Occidentals,"
the book's final story, are American Everymen haunted by the kind of experience that
doesn't show up on a resumé or an IRS audit.
If this literary triptych of ordinary American neuroses weren't so painfully extraordinary,
Ford's preoccupation with agonizingly introspective white males might come off a
bit, well, done. Henry James, anyone? Hemingway? Updike? Et cetera? Ad nauseum?
Who cares? Ford's straightforward account of his characters' upscale dilemmas sounds
fresh: Ford has taken a tired-out angle and given it new life.
And how can you fault someone who flags their own faults? When aspiring novelist
Matthews fusses that his book inadequately portrays "middle-class people caught
in the grip of small, internal dilemmas of their own messy concoction," you
can't help but smile at Ford's eloquent recognition of his own potential shortcomings.
Sentence for sentence, indeed.
-- David Snyder