Ford’s idiosyncratic style conveys his characters’ bafflements, both with each other and themselves, and sentences demand careful reading and occasional rereading. Yet what rewards! The writing is full of the most marvellous gems, absolute truths that linger long after finishing the stories. “Impatience, he believed, was a form of laziness”; “Good choices don’t make very good stories’’; “No one grieved the same, he thought”. That’s always been Ford’s gift: to say such things with such stark clarity. And he does it here superbly.
Acutely described settings, pitch-perfect dialogue, inner lives vividly evoked, complex protagonists brought toward difficult recognitions: There’s a kind of narrative, often dismissed as the “well-crafted, writing-class story,” that deals in muted epiphanies and trains its gaze inward, to pangs and misgivings. Some readers may no longer admire this kind of story. But I still love it. What is craft, after all, but a good thing well made?
The trouble in Sorry for Your Trouble is familiar Ford trouble: losing a spouse through death, divorce or adultery, the ache of loneliness, the urge to articulate some truth that’s just out of reach. The men are befuddled, hapless, numb; the women enigmatic, alluring, treacherous; the adolescents awkward, their fragile hopes thwarted by dysfunctional or absent parents. The prose is terse, the craftsmanship, as always, fine. The reader feels cradled in the capable hands of an expert.
Ford’s Irish dialect is better than his French-English: ‘My father who has been an ar-kay-o-lo-zheest,’ garbles the Parisian Nelli in ‘Jimmy Green – 1992’, the only dud story in Sorry for Your Trouble. Set on the night of Bill Clinton’s election victory, it grows out of a compelling idea: that 1992 was the year American politics started to eat itself. No president since that election has commanded widespread legitimacy – Clinton and Trump were impeached, Bush was initially elected without winning the popular vote, and Obama was pursued by birtherism. But while for some years Ford has enjoyed a side job as a political columnist in European newspapers, this effort to turn the thoughts he’s expressed there into fiction is disappointing. We learn that a group of Republicans are full of ‘buffoonish fury’ as they assault a Democrat in a bar. There is another, thankfully brief hint of this sort of political writing in ‘The Run of Yourself’, when a character’s decline into mental incapacity is portended by the fact that ‘she began staying in bed, listening to Rush Limbaugh’. But these are brief sags in an otherwise skilful, if offbeat, collection.