Cold was the ground: ‘Sorry for Your Trouble’

By Andrew Fuhrmann
Richard Ford delivers an elegant collection of stories of timeworn men and women contemplating the end

Richard Ford’s latest collection of short stories is as sad and solitary, as grey and weather-beaten, as an old stone chimney in an empty field. Solitariness is, indeed, the book’s dominant motif, because the stories in Sorry for Your Trouble (Bloomsbury) are about divorcees and widowers looking back on life and reconciling themselves to an old age without significant companionship.

Ford is a supremely talented and subtle writer in the realist tradition whose finest books, such as The Sportswriter (1986) and Rock Springs (1987), are justly regarded as major works of American literature. His bestselling novel Independence Day (1995), a sequel to The Sportswriter, was the first book to win both the Pulitzer and the PEN/Faulkner. And he was last year awarded both the Library of Congress Prize for American Fiction and The Paris Review’s lifetime achievement award.

His reputation, however, can at this moment feel a little precarious, and not just because of his headline-grabbing history of aggressive behaviour toward critics. Ford is an unrepentant masculinist in the gritty Raymond Carver tradition. His protagonists tend to be dour, disappointed middle-aged men who wallow in a whisky-soaked pathos that sometimes sounds like self-pity but is never quite so straightforward. It’s a narrative perspective with which a lot of readers today are inclined to be impatient.

Ford can, of course, be ironic and reflective and even quite funny about his limitations as a writer. His greatest creation is Frank Bascombe, the narrator of The Sportswriter and its three sequels. In his twenties, Frank wrote a book of stories that was well received. The life of a man of letters seemed to beckon. But Frank couldn’t keep it up. Instead he got married, took a job as a sportswriter and moved to the backblocks of New Jersey.

“I seemed,” Frank says of his early struggles with literature, “to have been stuck in bad stereotypes. All my men were too serious, too brooding and humourless, characters at loggerheads with imponderable dilemmas, and much less interesting than my female characters, who were always of secondary importance but free-spirited and sharp-witted.” And it’s true that Ford’s own briefly glimpsed female characters – and particularly the young girls in his short stories – have an intensity and veridical sparkle that his male narrators sometimes lack.

But Ford’s work will probably endure in spite of its affected and not always sincere nostalgia for a time when men were men and women knew how to heal them, because his prose has a special kind of enchantment that gives the impression of peering round the luminous edges of things and revealing other points of view. A masculinist he may be, but Richard Ford acknowledges – and is not ambivalent about – the existence of other people.

His narrators, no matter how roughed up and damaged by life, retain their capacity to accurately and empathetically perceive the men and women they encounter. And they seem to recognise, and often candidly admit, that these others must see things differently and in ways that are potentially more interesting and more poignant. If Ford’s stories are apt to be desolating it’s because his narrators, although they can perceive these other people, cannot reconcile themselves to live fully among them. Least of all as husband and wife.

This sorrowful pattern is, once again, the template for the stories in Sorry for Your Trouble. This new collection, however, seems even bleaker and more despairing than his previous books because there is now a prevailing sense that time has all but run out. The men and women in these stories are not only alone but staring down the prospect of remaining alone until the bitter end. The candles have worked low, an empty bottle of chablis sits by the television and, anyway, the old house will soon be razed. Signs of exhaustion are everywhere.

Sorry for Your Trouble is a book of long twilights and withered lives. The opening story, “Nothing to Declare”, sets the tone. A man in late middle age meets an old girlfriend he hasn’t seen in more than 20 years. She’s boozed up and he’s distracted. They wander around the French Quarter of New Orleans, down to the river. It’s late afternoon, the dregs of the day. There’s been a parade, but they’ve missed it. Their former relationship means very little to either of them. There is no connection and the past is no comfort.

The man remembers his father saying that he’d become “de-fascinated” with New Orleans. It’s an odd word and it sums up the atmosphere of this collection. Three stories – “The Run of Yourself”, “Jimmy Green—1992” and “Happy” – finish with visions of dawn breaking on the horizon. But the promise of a new day does not portend any psychic renewal. It feels instead like a perpetuation of the dim half-light through which we all struggle more or less aimlessly. And the world, by this cold light, holds no more wonders.

Not that the characters are in any material difficulty. These stories are about lawyers and bankers and real-estate brokers and architects and successful sculptors. Their problems are existential. They yearn for meaningful connectedness but can smell old mortality around the corner. At the end of “A Free Day”, a middle-aged woman involved in a tedious affair with the husband of an old college friend reviews her life while watching the scenery flicker past her window:

She was exhausted, as the fall and rise of winter landscape—Dundalk, now — wore past. Almost the sea view from the right side, snow commencing again but gradually changing to rain. There was so much time to be alive; then you weren’t anymore.

Is this how adultery should be? Rain. Snow. Exhaustion. And then the cold, cold ground? Total emptiness forever?

Time passes and rubs off the glamour. In almost all these stories men and women revisit memories of vanished love and fumbled connections. These memories, however, are never visions of a simpler or – God forbid – happier age. In the story “Displaced” a man recalls the time when, as a young boy, his neighbour, an older Irish lad, tried clumsily and unsuccessfully to seduce him at a drive-in. He wonders at this immigrant from Strathfoyle, who was good at heart but unreliable and slippery. But then, he reflects glumly, can anyone be relied on absolutely?

Irishness is one of the more prominent threads running through this collection. There are Irish characters and settings, or at least Irish references, in every one of the book’s nine stories. At times, as in his sweetly sentimental story about a man travelling by ferry to Dublin to finalise his divorce, it can seem as if Ford wants to suggest that his characters are drifting through a long backward-looking Celtic twilight in which the shattered remnants of modern families and wrecked dreams of togetherness have a terrible beauty.

But such misty melancholy is not really Richard Ford’s long suit. The Irish references are more effective when they call to mind immigrant feelings of restlessness and yearning and bereavement for the lost mysteries of the world. In one story, an Irish dentist living in suburban New Orleans observes – citing Samuel Beckett as his authority – that a loss becomes its own elemental presence. He’s a humorous man with a quiet, priestly manner and he sees a spiritual dimension even in extractions.

And Beckett is, perhaps, the presiding genius of this collection. Indeed, Sorry for Your Trouble might be summed up by those famous lines from “Worstward Ho”: “Longing that all go. Dim go. Void go. Longing go. Vain longing that vain longing go.” Yes, they do all go on, into the dim.

Does that make Sorry for Your Trouble sound like a depressing drag of a book? It’s not really. It’s a serious book with a kind of dilapidated majesty, but there are no empty maudlin flourishes or trite lamentations. It has an elegant but unostentatious truth, vividly realised in its many plaintive, tattered details. And its spare descriptions of human frailty do offer an unexpected kind of comfort, or at least consolation.

Andrew Fuhrmann

Andrew Fuhrmann is an editor and literary critic. He is a researcher in the Digital Studio at the University of Melbourne and has taught at the Victorian College of the Arts.

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