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Forbidden Fruit

Cover Review

A MULTITUDE OF SINS, Stories By Richard Ford, Alfred A. Knopf: 292 pp., $25

February 10, 2002|JANE CIABATTARI

Richard Ford, who was raised in Mississippi and has spent a lot of time in Montana, where the standard obituary often ends, "and he was an avid hunter and fisherman," has hunted all his life.

"Only the hunter, who imitates the permanent vigilance of wild animals, is capable of seeing everything," he quotes philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset in a Le Monde essay published in 1996, when Fordwas honored by the French cultural ministry for his work just before being awarded the Pulitzer Prize for the novel "Independence Day." In the 10 cautionary tales in his third collection of short stories, "A Multitude of Sins," Ford brings a hunter's steady, subtle and precise observation to an exploration of the commandment, "Thou Shalt Not Commit Adultery." All senses alert, the writer tracks the behaviors of America's wandering unfaithful through the motels and hotels and bars where they come to grips with their passions.

Although many of the narrators show kinship with Frank Bascombe, the self-absorbed divorced father of Ford's novels "The Sportswriter" and "Independence Day," these new stories are marked by a growing richness and maturity of voice. Ford's observations are more rooted in the complex realm of the past, where actions have ongoing reverberations, than in the immediate sensual world. As in his 1997 collection, "Women With Men," his focus here is on relationships--on cheating husbands and wives, on parents who run off and leave their yearning children behind. But in this case the settings are not Paris and Montana but American cities like New Orleans, Chicago and New York.

His couples are relatively straightforward in desire. Nothing kinky here; one senses that most of them simply want to find out how it feels to spend time with someone new. But there is more to these stories than near-supernatural perceptions. In Ford's particularly American universe, marital transgressions have consequences ranging from impending malaise to sudden death. Hell is following through on the impulse to stray--and then having second thoughts.

In "Reunion," a man has a chance encounter in Grand Central Station with the husband of a woman he had been involved with a year or so before. His recollection of their relationship puts the moral in a nutshell: "At any distance but the close range I saw it from, it was an ordinary adultery--spirited, thrilling, and then, after a brief while, after we had crossed the continent several times and caused as many people as possible unhappiness, embarrassment and heartache, it became disappointing and ignoble and finally almost disastrous to those same people."

"Privacy," the least of these stories, is the most solipsistic of the lot. The narrator thinks back to the time when his marriage was still happy. Even then, he would wait until his wife was asleep and watch a neighbor woman undress and dance in the nude. "It was all arousal and secrecy and illicitness and really nothing else," he recalls. And in no time, the thrill was gone.

In "Calling," a New Orleans lawyer leaves his wife and son for a man but returns one last time to initiate his son, home from military school over Christmas break, into the masculine ritual of duck hunting. The son, now grown, recalls, " ... my father did only what pleased him, and believed that doing so permitted others the equal freedom to do what they wanted. Only that isn't how the world works, as my mother's life and mine were living proof. Other people affect you. It's really no more complicated than that."

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