The story brings to mind an earlier first-person coming-of-age tale, "Great Falls," from Ford's 1987 collection, "Rock Springs," in which a boy and his father return home from duck hunting to discover a young airman with the mother. The father sends her packing. The next day she arranges to see her son one last time before leaving town. With the grave wisdom of a teenager absorbing life's deepest blows for the first time, the boy senses that his life has changed. "As I walked toward school, I thought to myself that my life had turned suddenly, and that I might not know exactly how or which way for possibly a long time. Maybe, in fact, I might never know." It is a measure of Ford's artistic maturity--how far he has come as a writer and observer--that the older narrator in "Calling" has the self-awareness to flush out a more complicated and resigned, if bleaker insight than that of the boy in "Great Falls": "I am not interested in the whys and wherefores of what [my father] did and didn't do, or in causing that day to seem life-changing for me, because it surely wasn't. Life had already changed. That morning represented just the first working out of particulars I would evermore observe. Like my father, I am a lawyer. And the law is a calling which teaches you that most of life is about adjustments, the seatings and re-seatings we perform to accommodate events occurring outside our control ... so that when I am tempted ... to let myself become preoccupied and angry with my father ... I try to realize again that it is best to just offer myself release and to realize I am feeling anger all alone, and that there is no redress."
"Abyss," the novella-length finale to the collection, is a marvel, a shimmering mirage of a story that starts in Mystic, Conn., and shifts into the glare of the Arizona desert. In supple, lyrical language, Ford gives us a dark and specific emotional analysis of an affair that begins with a "large, instinctual carnal attraction" between Frances and Howard, who meet at a real estate industry awards banquet, where they were named Connecticut Residential Agents of the Year.
The attraction was the kind, Frances thought, "animals probably feel all the time, and that made their lives much more bearable." Risking the loss of their jobs as well as their marriages, the two arrange clandestine meetings at motels like a Howard Johnson under the interstate near Mystic and decide to reconvene at a sales conference in Phoenix. There, Frances impulsively invites Howard to drive with her to the Grand Canyon for what she expects to be a mystical experience. On the road, familiarity quickly breeds irritation.
Ford presents the brief crescendo and lengthy diminuendo of their liaison as a tragicomic duet, shifting with breathtaking fluidity from his point of view ("She was hateful, he thought. Flattening a rabbit [on the highway] wouldn't be the half of it. It was probably how she sold houses: a steam-roller, never relenting") to hers ("And now he was beginning to ruin things, just the way she'd feared but had promised herself not to let him.... She felt willing to push him right out the door onto the road, using her foot").
Hell, Howard decides, is a spot in the desert that is "dry, empty, bright, chilly, alien, and difficult to breathe in," a stone's throw from an Indian casino and a crummy little chapel with a wooden sign reading "Chris Died for Your Sins." At their destination, Frances is blissful; he is petulant (the canyon is, he thinks, the opposite of real estate: big but empty). She insists upon a personalized snapshot. Her fierce will, like the grandmother's in Flannery O'Connor's "A Good Man Is Hard to Find," brings her a brutal sort of grace. And Howard learns an awful lesson: "What you did definitely changed things." Forever.
There are other echoes of O'Connor here, in the harsh wit and preoccupation with good and evil, in the author's willingness to let characters seem shallow, even despicable. But Ford has moved beyond the small-town South to encompass the comedy and pathos and wit of our dislocated times, the rhythms of the workaday world and the emptiness that comes at the end of the day to the lobbyist, the lawyer, the retired cop who dreams of starting over again in East Whatever, Maine.
Whether it's with the broad canvas of "Independence Day," or with "A Multitude of Sins," which reminds us how powerful short stories can be, Ford delivers a piercing look at the ways men and women deceive and disappoint each other.
Jane Ciabattari is the author of the forthcoming short story collection "Stealing the Fire" and a contributing editor to Parade magazine.