October 17, 2020: “Nothing to Declare” by Richard Ford

Hello there, Story366!

I’m writing again from the past, jettisoning my message of literacy and short story awesomeness to the future. When this posts, I will be down in Arkansas on a Scout campout, no decent Internet signal within twenty miles. I’m actually writing this on Thursday night, two days before post, so I don’t miss a day. Hello there, readers! I hope the future is bright and wonderful. And it’s not raining.

Today I’m reviewing Richard Ford‘s new book, Sorry for Your Trouble, out this year from ECCO. It’s Ford’s first story collection since A Multitude of Sins in 2003; it’s been nearly thirty-five years since Rock Springs, too. He’s had a ton of novels in-between, including the Pulitzer-winning Independence Day, and a two collections of novellas as well.

I’m excited to have a new Richard Ford collection and to be featuring him here at Story366, finally, after so many entries. I’ve probably disclosed this before, but I really love Rock Springs. I came across it seven or eight years after it was released and it already seemed like a classic. The book, or stories from it, were taught in all my classes in undergrad, as “Rock Springs” and “Great Falls” and “The Communist” were widely anthologized. I still have “Rock Springs” on my must-read list for my students, and enjoy rereading it every year or so myself.

Ford influenced my writing a great deal. I loved his no-good, hapless underdogs, his easy dialogue, and his obvious Carver influence. When I wrote my thesis in grad school, I wanted to write my own Rock Springs, but mostly failed, as I didn’t have Ford’s knowledge of the world nor his patience for realism. Still, some of my syntactical leanings, mainly the slightness of my sentences, can be traced back to Ford’s style, as well as my penchant for unreliability. I’ve liked other books of his since, but really connect to that first collection.

“Nothing to Declare” is the first story in Sorry for Your Trouble. It’s about Sandy McGuinness, a just-past-middle-aged lawyer who runs into an old flame. He’s at one of his firm’s dinners at a fancy New Orleans restaurant when he spots the woman, across the table, the guest of one of his partners’ clients. He can’t quite place her at first, but she’s the center of attention in the room, everyone charmed by her whit and beauty.

Ford then breaks into a new section, without much transition, to what turns out to be the characters’ backstory. Sandy and the woman, Barbara, traveled to Iceland during college on a cheap summer getaway, Rome or Paris too expensive. When they get there, they take a bus to the end of the everything, thinking there will be accommodations, but there’s nothing. A cod-dryer (this is a real occupation) lets them sleep in a shack on his farm, a shack where goats sleep on the roof. The two get by with free cod and eggs and hospitality, two college kids on an adventure in a strange land, bunking in a mud hut. Seems like the prescription for a vacation romance, but nothing materializes, mostly because Sandy hesitates. He believes he will see her back in Ithaca, but when they return, Barbara disappears.

That is, until this night, thirty-five years later, at this restaurant. Both of them step out to meet by the restrooms, confirming each other’s suspicions of who they are. They end up taking a walk, a tour of New Orleans. During their conversation, we find out more details about them, like how they’re both married, though neither wants to go into details. Barbara thinks she saw Sandy the previous year in New York, which Sandy denies, though it could have been, as he travels there for business (and visits a lover, too).

Most of all, each of these people seem interested in the effect they had on the other. Sandy and Barbara—who has gone by many names, by the way, including Ms. Nail—seem interested in how much the other has thought about them over the years. The notion of regret, of what could have been, is also in the air. It’s fantasy that most of us have, right? Running into that ex, or that never-was, your whole life flashing before your eyes. Sandy and Barbara have that moment, get to play it out.

Barbara wants to kiss Sandy, and since they’re both consenting adults (who have both cheated on their spouses routinely), there’s really nothing keeping these two from consummating their reunion. I won’t reveal what happens, though, as that’d be revealing too much. What I’ll say instead is this is a real character study, a joy to watch how Sandy reacts to this unlikely encounter, what goes through his head, and what’s really at stake. Plus, their conversation, and this situation, is coy and charming.

“Happy” is about Happy Kamper, a woman who’s dropped in on some old friends with the news that her longtime partner, Mick Riordan, has died. Mick Riordan gets a long biography in the form of a several-page backstory, and he comes off and larger than life. He was a writer, then an editor, then a literary icon. Two of the people Happy drops in on—during an overnight dinner party—were former clients of Mick’s, Mick making their literary careers. Everyone in the room knows each other from some swanky job or event and remaining friends. Most of that was through Mick, however, and with him gone, some truths from the past emerge and tensions rise. Alcohol coaxes this situation, too. There’s a Big Chill feel going on, a lot of honesty rearing its head in the wake of a friend’s death, but Ford moves beyond that with some real insight into how his class lives, how they still hurt.

“Crossing” is about Tom, an American attorney who’s crossing on a ferry from England to Ireland to settle his divorce, his soon-to-be ex from Ireland. On the trip, he runs into three other Americans, three aged school teachers from Joliet on the trip of their lives. The woman are loud and obnoxious—typically American, many characters note—but Tom is also distracted by a woman who looks like someone he met once and tried to sleep with, but was shut down. Eventually the three school teachers start talking to Tom and want him to get drunk with them later that night, which is tempting. In all, Tom’s thinking a lot about his wife, some of the choices he’s made, and the choices that are yet to come.

Sorry for Your Trouble is the first collection, or work in general, that I’ve read by Ford in quite a while. I enjoyed the stories here. Ford again invests his characters into life’s complexities, watching as they work through, haunted by memories and motivated by their present. These characters carry that balance with them, Ford exposing their vulnerabilities, making them as real as characters can be.

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