Until he won the Pulitzer Prize in 1995 for Independence Day, Richard Ford was best known for his generally well- received novel The Sportswriter (1986), to which his Pulitzer Prize winner is a sequel of sorts. The central character of the two novels, Frank Bascomb, has been compared with Arthur Miller’s Willy Loman and John Updike’s Harry Angstrom as a middle-class American comic-tragic hero. The novels themselves have been called masterful works of great fiction that will ensure Ford’s place as a great American writer.
Admirers of the short story will best remember Ford as the author ofRock Springs (1987), a collection that has guaranteed Ford a place in textbook anthologies, especially with the title story as well as with “Communist” and “Great Falls,” stories that focus on adolescent boys trying to find someone on whom to model their lives and on displaced men unable to establish any sense of identity or stability.
In this new collection of three long stories, or short novels, Ford is still concerned with the painful initiation of adolescent males and the dilemma of lost and drifting middle-aged men, but these “new” fictions have neither the comprehensive voice and vision of Ford’s highly praised novels nor the tight, metaphoric technique of his best stories. In the two pieces that focus on American men in Paris—“The Womanizer” and “Occidentals”—the central characters are unsympathetic and not particularly wise; they have no humor, they drift passively through relationships, and they affect others only negatively. “Jealous” is the best of the lot, but only because Ford seems much more comfortable focusing on a young man in Montana, a country he obviously knows well, than on middle-aged men adrift in Paris, a city that he seems to know only as a prototypical European site of American dreams and disillusionment.
“The Womanizer” first appeared in Granta in the summer of 1992, while “Jealous” was published in The New Yorker in November, 1992. “Occidentals” apparently is previously unpublished. The collection is so lackluster that one is tempted to suggest, perhaps uncharitably, that Ford’s publisher wished to capitalize quickly on his Pulitzer Prize visibility and urged him to “put together” this collection out of whatever he had lying around. Perhaps not, but the book does not promise to add significantly to Ford’s reputation or career. Even the title seems to be something an editor devised to stitch together some disparate and desultory pieces.
The title of “The Womanizer” suggests what thematic focus Ford is trying to explore in the first story. The answer to the unspoken question, “What is a womanizer?,” according to Ford’s take on the topic, is that he is a disengaged, passive romantic. Although such a passive character as Martin Austin may very well have been a typical character of the minimalist-realist trend in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, he seems dated here. The plot is simple enough: Martin, a forty-four-year-old businessman, married with no children, meets Joséphine Belliard, a French woman in her thirties, who is in the midst of divorcing her husband. Although Martin is not unhappy with his wife, he wants to do “something extraordinary,” saying to the bemused and more sophisticated Joséphine, “I’d like to make you happy somehow.”
Although Martin’s wooing of Joséphine seems romantically motivated, it is, in practice, indecisive and indifferent. Joséphine is not passionately interested in Martin, asking him directly at one point what he wants from her, and Martin does not seem passionate about her, telling her at one point, “This is real life. We could be lovers.” When he talks to his wife on the phone, he perversely tells her he is going out to dinner with a woman. Although he does not hint to his wife of a sexual involvement with Joséphine, he lets her know that he is not really interested in their relationship either. After being back home in America only one day, his indifference to his wife drives her away, and he impulsively flies back to Paris. Even this drastic act of leaving his job and his wife, however, has no real energy about it. When he arrives back in Paris and calls Joséphine, she is as indifferent to him as she was before.
The story reaches its contrived climax when Martin takes care of Joséphine’s young son Leo while she goes to see her lawyer. While in the park, Martin is so distracted by his recent actions, his own weak and indecisive romanticism, and Joséphine’s indifference that he allows Leo to be kidnapped and sexually assaulted. When the boy is found, the mother informed, and the police report made, Joséphine confronts Martin with the ultimate angry retort to his “womanizing” idealization: “It is not a game. You know? Maybe to you it is a game.” Finally, as if the reader is not astute...
(The entire section is 2005 words.)