Having won the 1995 Pulitzer Prize for his novel Independence Day, Richard Ford inspired high praise from the New York Times Book Review. “Nobody now writing looks more like an American classic,” the magazine said. A Multitude of Sins, Ford’s latest collection of short stories about burnt-out Baby Boomers, is by all means a well-crafted book. But is it a classic?
Ford’s style drips with poetry and extended metaphors drawn from typical modern situations. Whether using a roadkilled raccoon to represent a broken marriage or comparing a puppy to the role of fate in our lives, his stories reveal the fleeting magic in everyday situations.
Ford’s characters are aimed at a certain caste of modern readers. Lawyers, psychologists and professors populate these stories. In portraying their lives, Ford writes about what he calls “conflicted gossip about people doing what you yourself would like to be doing.” The actualization of the common yet rarely followed impulses of middle-class professionals drives a majority of the tales in A Multitude of Sins. Ford reveals his take on the American subconscious by delineating the desires we most often suppress.
That he has been termed a “classic” of American literature is a reflection of this ability to sum up or generalize the collective consciousness of his readers. That this method works, however, suggests the declining individuality of modern Americans. Today’s average American reader watches the same television, reads the same novels and holds roughly the same outlook on the outside world as his suburban nextdoor neighbor. The reader empathizes with Ford’s characters because their fictional lives are as generic and homogeneous as his own.
On the other hand, the recurring conflicts of A Multitude of Sins may be too repetitive to make an American “classic.” Its scope is somewhat limited and its ability to inspire Americans over time is far from a sure thing. As can be inferred from its title, Ford believes that subversive action through sin is easier for Americans to accomplish than good deeds. By sinning, Ford suggests that characters can distinguish their lives from their pedestrian middle-class routines.
His sin of choice is adultery. In each story, families and marriages are affected by infidelity, affairs and divorce. He portrays the effects on a son after his father leaves for another man and his mother finds a new lover. He shows every aspect of broken marriages, from the perspective of the faithful man to the inner thoughts of the female adulterer. The varied portrayal and interpretation of this single sin reflects the exhaustive scope of Ford’s imagination.
Ford cites two typical reasons for his characters’ infidelity. The first is the impossibility of finding a spouse who one can ever truly know and unfailingly understand. He believes that all mates are largely compromises, and, since partners are never completely satisfied with one another, they cheat. This belief reflects Ford’s his strong opinion that humans are inherently alone in the world and in their thoughts and that marriage is a futile attempt at looking through another’s eyes. His second-favored cause of infidelity is simply boredom with the normal American middle-class lifestyle. Infidelity for many of his characters becomes a means of distinguishing themselves from their less adventurous peers.
To Ford, Americans enjoy finding the easy way out of their problems. By individualizing their lives and having them buck the system, rather than perform a noble action, Ford suggests that most Americans would much rather become the drug user, failure or adulterer, to be the sinner, not the saint. But Ford’s stories, though their generalizations may be accurate, apply only to a specific group of Americans who are set (or so they think) in their well-paying jobs, nuclear families, and suburban homes. A Multitude of Sins may well be a classic, but only of the aging-Yuppie variety.
A Multitude of Sins
By Richard Ford
304 pp., $25
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