The seven deadly ones get all the press, but it's the multitude of other, seemingly petty sins that Richard Ford writes about in his new short story collection. "All of those small acts we commit on a daily basis at ground level are how we fail," he says. "We fail by lacking patience, sincerity, passion, truthfulness, lacking all kinds of things — that's what A Multitude of Sins is."
Ford, whose 1995 novel Independence Day won both the Pulitzer Prize and the PEN/Faulkner Award, uses his new collection to pinpoint pivotal moments of failure in people's lives. Their sins aren't spectacular ones, just the sad accretion of betrayal and loss that's part of daily life.
"I don't think these people are doomed, desperate or on the edge more than anyone else," says Ford of characters like the husband and wife in "Charity," whose marriage of 20 years is in limbo after the husband has an affair. "They're socked into life pretty good. I don't think if you were to stand outside the lives of the people in these stories, in ‘Creche' and ‘Charity,' you would think they were anybody special. By looking at these lives, you're liable to see something as great as kings and heroes. In that fabric of otherwise under-noticeable lives is the stuff of real moral existence. It's meant to ennoble and make more poignant the lives you may not have noticed."
In the struggle of these ordinary characters, Ford creates a mirror, a way to view our own humanity. He's made infidelity a theme in his stories, and as he does with the title A Multitude of Sins, takes a term "we think we understand and have a working definition of, and lifts the lid on it."
Infidelity in Ford's lexicon means a betrayal of our true selves. His characters fumble, deceiving each other and deluding themselves. Many also commit the more common definition of infidelity — adultery. It's an intriguing theme from Ford, who married Kristina Hensley, his college sweetheart, in 1967 and has stayed good and married to her. That doesn't make him eager to be literature's patron saint of wedded bliss. "I think that nobody's marriage is alike," says Ford, who believes even in so-called solid marriages like his own, "you see all kinds of peculiarities, idiosyncrasies."
In Ford's case, he has a restless nature and doesn't like to stay put for long. Since publishing his first novel A Piece of My Heart in 1976, he's crisscrossed the country and lived abroad, as well — a man with no sense of home and no patience with the subject. "I don't think about it. It doesn't matter. I don't care. I'm a Mississippian. Was born in Mississippi. I don't want to live there. I did live there. I may live there again. I finally have given up. I'm an American."
Ford, 58, frequently tires of his home on New Orleans' Bourbon Street and lights out for his homes in Maine and Mississippi. His wife, a New Orleans city planner, doesn't have the same luxury. "We have not been living together very much," admits Ford. "But the overriding thing about Kristina and me is we really love each other and we know that and have seen it over and over again at every pass. What makes a solid marriage is not necessary kind of conduct or stewardship or guardianship. That seems to me to be missing the point. You have to love somebody."
His housing situation is soon to change. "We just bought a much more commodious house in the Garden District," says Ford. "I was never good at living in the French Quarter. It makes a great story, great letterhead, but it was kind of a drag. Like living in a theme park."
Aware of his own quirks, Ford never plays moral arbiter as a writer. In A Multitude of Sins, he serves as witness, sometimes speaking through the narrator by writing in first person, sometimes portraying scenes with a cinematic crispness by writing in third person.
"Third person is hard for me," he confesses. "I struggle with that. Sometimes I write in third person just to prove I can." Ford works to determine how much the omniscient narrator tells, how intimate the voice should be. "The bar I set for myself is a very high bar. It's the bar of Alice Munro. I'm never as successful at it as I want to be, whereas in first person I feel I'm as successful as I could be."
He selects point of view "by the way in which the first lines of the story occur to me. I don't think it's always right, but I've never changed the point of view once I have it under way."
As with the stories in his 1987 collection Rock Springs, the stories in A Multitude of Sins originally appeared in The New Yorker and Granta. Each story stands on its own, a searing indictment of how ethically lost and emotionally isolated we've become. In his story "Quality Time," Ford writes, "[S]omeone has to tell us what's important because we no longer know." Taken together in this collection, though, the nine stories read as though all of a piece.
"They were meant to," says Ford. "I realized when I was three stories into it. ‘Privacy,' ‘Creche' and ‘Quality Time' prefigured the rest of the book. It was a sort of a relief. Sometimes you write books of stories that come in from all quadrants, a rattle bag. But I'm a novelist principally and had this prefiguring idea. I could choose what I was thinking about, choose with a novelist's eyes, to make one story fit after another."
In order to ascertain that he'd created the effect he wanted with repetition of words and themes, Ford read each story aloud as he did with the 700-plus manuscript pages of Independence Day. "I'm dyslexic. I can't see those things," he says. "When you read it out loud, you catch everything."
He expects readers to enter into his work with the same seriousness and dedication. "The idea of authorship is that you authorize the reader's responses as much as you can. You don't want there to be a great discrepancy between what you write and what you know the reader will read. If there are great discrepancies, you're not running the story as much as you need to be. I feel it's a tincture of failure," says Ford.
"I know the reader will have his own history, preoccupations, priorities, obsessions, thoughts, I know that. And that just means everybody's different. But at the point of contact with my story, I want everybody to be mine."
Ellen Kanner is a writer in Miami.