A Multitude of Sins

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1705

Ever since the publication of his breakthrough novel The Sportswriter (1986), Richard Ford has confirmed his reputation as one of America’s foremost realist fiction writers. After The Sportswriter ’s success, he went on to gain critical praise for his collection of Raymond Carver- esque stories of the Western working class...

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Ever since the publication of his breakthrough novel The Sportswriter (1986), Richard Ford has confirmed his reputation as one of America’s foremost realist fiction writers. After The Sportswriter’s success, he went on to gain critical praise for his collection of Raymond Carver- esque stories of the Western working class in Rock Springs (1987). Then, after his shorter novel Wildlife (1990) received a more muted reception, Ford returned with the sequel to The Sportswriter called Independence Day (1995), which was the first book to win both the Pulitzer Prize and the PEN/Faulkner Award. Independence Day continues the story of Frank Bascombe, a character invented when Ford’s wife asked him to write a novel about a happy man. While Frank worked as a sportswriter in the previous novel, he becomes a realtor in Independence Day, and the novel conveys in exhaustive detail his Fourth of July car trip with his juvenile delinquent son Paul to the Baseball Hall of Fame, considering all the while the holiday, the sport, and what they represent. Eventually, his son allows himself to get hit in the eye by the pitching device in a batting cage and the novel ends with Bascombe having to reconsider his value system in the face of his lack of success with his son. Since the critical and commercial success of Independence Day, Ford has written another well-received short collection of stories titled Women with Men (1997).

With A Multitude of Sins, Ford has produced a collection of ten stories loosely centered on the theme of adultery and its aftermath among the professional class. Many of the stories revolve around an affair between two married people who are found out by a spouse and the spouse’s reactions to the husband’s or wife’s infidelity. Since many of the characters are lawyers, the stories read like variations on a theme, with Ford considering the complexities of the moral consequences of their actions. In an interview for the Internet magazine Salon, Ford explained the moral aspect of his aesthetics: “It’s always easy to write about things that . . . go kaflooey, and people leave and the door slams and that’s the dramatic end. But I’m always interested in what happens after somebody walks out the door. I’m interested in what they do later.” Out of the disorder of romantic infatuation and middle-aged marital drift, the stories in A Multitude of Sins try to find meaning in people’s unexpected actions. Adultery obliges the characters to confront themselves when their marital roles no longer suffice. While the title of the collection hints at a judgmental look at the wages of sin, Ford consistently acknowledges the complexities of the consequences of his characters’ behavior and the difficulty of knowing what is the right thing to do.

The collection begins with a short piece called “Privacy” that highlights how often romantic dreams lead people into delusional attachments. The nameless narrator finds himself fantasizing about a nude woman he can barely see dancing in the distance in a building opposite his bedroom window. After reluctantly telling of his sneaky delight in gazing upon the woman as his wife sleeps in the same room late at night, he learns one morning that the Chinese woman he had been ogling is in her seventies. The story ends with his sense of betrayal by his own foolish, illicit pleasure.

Other shorter stories dramatize a single scene highlighting the discovery of an affair. In “Under the Radar,” Marjorie Reeves, the flirtatious young wife of Steven Reeves, admits to a year-long affair with a man as they drive to the same man’s house for dinner. This revelation at first stuns Steven, causing him to park the car out in the countryside. The shock of his wife’s revelation leaves him with a feeling common in many of the other characters put in this situation—a sense of disengagement from himself. It causes “him to detach from reality and to slide away from the present.” While this feeling leaves him distracted enough to punch his wife thoughtlessly, it does help him realize that “he didn’t really know his wife at all,” in effect puncturing the complacent lies of their relationship. When Steven gets out of the car to investigate a raccoon that has been run over by a truck, his wife drives off, abandoning him in the middle of nowhere. Another short story, “Reunion,” concerns an encounter in Grand Central Station in which the narrator, a man who had fooled around with Mack Bolger’s wife, spies Mack standing in the crowded concourse and impulsively decides to talk to him. Mack, naturally, is not happy to see the man he had last discovered with his wife in a hotel room. They have a short, forced conversation, and Mack ends it by claiming that “Nothing’s happened today . . . I’m sorry I ever met you, that’s all. . . . You make me feel ashamed.” What had begun out of the narrator’s sense of curiosity ends up simply being a mistake, just as he realizes the affair was a mistake. The nondrama of the story ends up being more effective for its subtlety and sense of loss than a more melodramatic scene would have been.

While A Multitude of Sins can be faulted for its repetitions of types of characters (there are many lawyers), its general lack of action, and its tendency to replay interchangeable variations on scenes, Ford attends well to concrete detail, psychological nuance, and exact descriptions of place. He is reluctant to emphasize symbols in the mass of particularity, preferring to let the reader try to make sense of how the surroundings around a character relate to the emotions of the character. Often the setting is in ironic contrast to the internal action in the story. For instance, the more ambitious story “Calling” chronicles a man’s youthful memory of his father asking him to go duck hunting with him in the early 1960’s. In one respect, the story reads like a classic Hemingway tale about father/son bonding and masculinity, but Ford complicates the paradigm by setting the story in the decadent milieu of New Orleans. Furthermore, he has the father set up the duck-hunting trip after leaving his son’s mother for another man, thereby causing the mother’s decline into drug use, promiscuity, and a premature death. The father, with his ability to abstract himself from situations, thinks he can leave his family in this way without consequences, but the son sees the harmful effects of his actions every day, so the story ultimately shows the boy’s growing alienation from his father and his determination to not be like him. When it comes time to shoot a duck, the boy refuses, and again this nonaction is more indicative of his new resolve than a more Hemingwayesque show of force would be.

The strongest story of the collection, and also the darkest, comes last. While many of the other philandering couples share comfortably upper-middle-class backgrounds, “Abyss” describes an affair between two Connecticut real estate agents who have to struggle to stay above the poverty line. While the other stories tend to be set in posh hotels or resort areas along the East Coast, “Abyss” takes place in impersonal lower-rent conference-oriented hotels next to busy freeways and urban sprawls, and Frances and Howard have to sneak around to avoid not only their spouses but also the eyes of their competitive coworkers, since the organization they work for does not condone its employees sleeping with one another. After establishing that they definitely lust for each other after several hotel liaisons, Frances decides she wants to drive Howard from Phoenix to visit the Grand Canyon. Their gin-soaked journey in a rented red Town Car carries them past every kind of sleazy joint, from tepee hotels to small-town casinos. At one place, rabbits die on the highway with suicidal abandon, in front of their hotel room beetle husks accumulate in the night, and the images of mass death, cultural erosion, and overpopulation all lead inexorably to Frances’s accidental death by falling into the Grand Canyon as Howard tries to take her picture. All through the story she had spoken of taking “the plunge” and how the canyon was considered by the Indians as a “gateway to the underworld,” and so her death serves as a perfect corollary to the spiritual anomie and waste depicted up to that point. Interestingly, Ford leaves it to one of his most feckless characters, Howard Cameron, to do the right thing and confess to the authorities what happened to Frances, even though it means the loss of his job and damage to his marriage. At the end of the story, a highway patrol officer suggests a conclusion when he decries the complete takeover of the natural landscape with “houses and parking lots and malls and offices and the whole array of the world’s ills that come of living too near to your neighbor: crime, poverty, hostility, deceit and insufficient air to breathe.” This apocalyptic story’s sense of the increasing debasement, exploitation, and trivialization of its characters at the hands of their overcrowded environment makes for an excellent conclusion to the collection.

Throughout A Multitude of Sins, Ford describes his characters’ emotional confusion and their surroundings as a way to find order amid the flux of experience. Writing in the realist tradition, he shows how one can parse out a sense of consequence amid all the seeming irrelevancies of day-to-day life, but to his credit the stories do not seem forced, condemnatory, or moralistic. In “Abyss,” Howard notes that the new developments near Flagstaff, Arizona, show that “There was nothing interesting or original or wild to see, just more people filling up space where formerly nobody had wanted to be. . . . These were the modern-day equivalent of the lost tribes.” His characters are often lost in such impersonal circumstances and looking for a way through adultery to find themselves or be found.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist 98 (December 15, 2001): 683.

Commonweal 129 (April 5, 2002): 30.

Library Journal 127 (February 1, 2002): 134.

New Statesman 14 (October 29, 2001): 57.

New York 35 (February 18, 2002): 172.

The New York Times Book Review 107 (March 3, 2002): 8.

Publishers Weekly 248 (December 17, 2001): 62.

The Spectator 287 (November 3, 2001): 57.

The Times Literary Supplement, September 28, 2001, p. 24.

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