Actually, it’s a single sin: adultery and its “multitude” of consequences, explored with varying success in this dour collection of nine stories and a novella, Ford’s third such, following Rock Springs (1997) and Women Without Men (1987).
The weakness of these stories (and Ford’s signal failing as a writer) is monotony. His characters almost all act and sound essentially alike. They’re guilty, evasive, self-justifying misbehavers. Yet this volume does attempt to work fresh variations on its potentially limiting theme: in an atypically tightly plotted vignette, for example, about an unfaithful wife’s confession, her stricken husband’s angry response, and the way she deals with him (“Under the Radar”); and in the novella “Abyss,” where an adulterous pair of realtors’ “business trip” to the Grand Canyon leads to a (totally unconvincing) melodramatic end. Elsewhere, Ford observes the breakup of a morose journalist’s affair with a married woman painter (“Quality Time”); a middle-aged man’s reminiscence of a duck-hunting expedition with his vagrant, cowardly father, who had abandoned the narrator and his mother for another man (“Calling”); and a Canadian woman who hires an actor to impersonate her husband, as a way of controlling her American lover (in the exquisitely titled “Dominion,” which is nevertheless flawed by coy indirect references to the “game” thus being played). Two stories rise above the general level of uninspired competence: a knowing revelation of the calculated innocence with which an adulterous ex-cop slowly destroys his wife’s impulse to forgive him (“Tom championed some preposterous idea for the sole purpose of having her reject it so that he could then do what he wanted to anyway”); and the superb “Puppy,” in which the unwelcome presence of a stray mutt exacerbates a complacent professional couple’s buried fears—until the unoffending creature becomes “a casualty of the limits we all place on our sympathy and our capacity for the ambiguous in life.”
Typical Ford: earnest, labored, only intermittently illuminated by vivid characters and convincing impressions of the variety of their lives.