Richard Ford, who started out writing hard-boiled fiction (bizarrely labelled ‘dirty realism’ along with his friend Raymond Carver), has restricted himself in the last couple of decades to two subjects: heterosexual relationships, and Frank Bascombe. He’s best known for his trilogy of novels featuring the latter, and we can only guess at what he’s writing now that Bascombe’s story seems complete. Actually it’s a pretty safe bet that it will be the same theme – men and women, women and men, it’ll never work – that has constituted almost all his non-Bascombe output since The Sportswriter back in 1986. This comprises a short novel, Wildlife, a collection of stories, A Multitude of Sins, and this trio of novellas, Women With Men (1997).
For the second time in a row, I spy a title inspired by Hemingway; his 1927 collection of stories was titled Men Without Women. I haven’t read it, and so have no idea what the connection might be, if any; other than a little slack irony given that Ford’s stories, despite foregrounding women in the title, are about men, men, men all the way.
There are women in there too, of course, but everything about them is seen through the prism of the man’s consciousness. The second story, ‘Jealous’, is easiest to dispose of, as it’s the weakest in the collection: a slightly showy tale of theatrical emotion and bloody drama, the one notable feature of which was its use of the last words in Huckleberry Finn (“I been there before”) as a repeated refrain. Ford sure does love his Am. Lit.
The two longer pieces, a hundred pages each, are a curious couple of companions. Their elements have so much in common – a present in Paris and a past in America, adultery, the publishing business – that it almost seems Ford had set himself a challenge to remix two stories from the same ingredients.
The beauty of the first story in particular is its Bascombe-like level of qualification in everything the central character, Martin Austin, thinks.
Obviously she was more complicated, maybe even smarter, than he’d thought, and quite realistic about life, though slightly disillusioned. Probably, if he wanted to press the matter of intimacy, he could take her back to his room – a thing he’d done before on business trips, and even if not so many times, enough times that to do so now wouldn’t be extraordinary or meaningful, at least not to him.
If this wasn’t hedged enough with doubt, the next paragraph begins: “Yet there was a measure of uncertainty surrounding the very thought…” and a following block of text full of further qualifications. This in itself created similar mixed feelings in me: delighted by the subtle and realistic portrayal of such (male?) equivocation, and frustrated by both my own pleasure in this and Austin’s muddiness. Then I was doubly wrong-footed by finding his final expression both self-satisfied – on Austin’s part – and witty – on Ford’s (“It made him feel pleased even to entertain such a multi-layered view”).
And there is wit in this story, not least when Austin returns from his Paris business trip to his wife (with whom he’d been having phone calls largely comprising “expensive, transoceanic silence”) and they have a reconciliation of sorts:
Late that night, a Tuesday, he and Barbara made brief, boozy love in the dark of their thickly curtained bedroom, to the sound of a neighbor’s springer spaniel barking unceasingly one street over. Theirs was a practiced, undramatic lovemaking, a set of protocols and assumptions lovingly followed like a liturgy which points to but really has little connection with the mysteries and chaos that had once made it a breathless necessity.
This is followed by painful truth when the Austin and his wife lie beside one another afterwards, and “sought to find something to say.” (Ford risks excessive neatness by noting that the after the sexual act – “nine minutes, start to finish” – “the neighbor’s dog had shut up as if on cue.”)
The finest joke in the story though is the title, which faces the reader at the top of every other page we read about this uncertain, tentative creeper of an adulterer. ‘The Womanizer,’ it says, again almost with too obvious a wink, just as Austin continues to have gloriously unwomanizerly thoughts.
This feeling now, this sensation of heaviness, of life’s coming unmoored, was actually, he believed, a feeling of vigilance, the weight of responsibility accepted, the proof that carrying life to a successful end was never an easy matter.
The zinger here, presumably, being that there’s no such thing as a successful end to a life. When Austin feels something that pulls him but he can’t quite understand, all he knows is that it “meant something, something lasting and important. This force, he felt, was what all the great novels ever written were about.” All this unsureness, crossing from author to reader through character, seems to me to represent as successful a creation of a real person on the page as one could get in such traditional form.
The balancing story at the other end, ‘Occidentals,’ is less strong but builds up to something interesting by the end. With my mania for bookshelf space, I now only keep the books I like most, and am torn over Women With Men – indeed, would like to have it torn in two, keep ‘The Womanizer’ and discard the others. If only Melville House would issue it alone in their Art of the Novella series. Until the revolution in copyright law which would allow that to happen, I’ll have to put up with the dead weight. But a few millimetres of shelf space could be worse spent.