A writer who has shaped (and is unarguably still shaping) the face of modern American literature, Richard Ford’s latest collection of short stories is another triumph, showcasing his recognisable wit and affinity for analysing the average American, with clever, subtle humour. As is the case with Ford’s writing, there’s lots to unpack in these short yet mighty tales, making for a strong, considered, collection. There’s a level of nuance in the book, too; Ford toys with the reader’s emotions and pulls us to a sense of almost displacement, as we drif along the unforgiving Atlantic Ocean.
Ford’s books have a special place in my literary heart; when I found I got a place at university to study American Literature with Creative Writing, I spent the summer beforehand familiarising myself with some of the most influential modern voices in this category. Of course, Ford’s Independence Day and Sportswriter easily made the list, and I loved the dry humour of the books, and marveled at the deep analyses of place and masculinity. This tone mirrored what I believed I wanted my own writing to convey, and I was left inspired.
While my explorations into American Literature have expanded since then, I still find Ford’s writing style undeniably enjoyable and instantly recognisable. Sorry For Your Trouble is no deviation from what he knows best – bleak situations, funny undertones, and the ability to expertly capture ordinary familial relationships. Reading the pieces, I wasn’t sure how I was meant to feel. Was I supposed to empathise with the protagonists and their misfortunes? Or was I meant to snigger at the tongue in cheek nature of it all?
The stories had this ability to completely flip how I was feeling towards the narrative with the turn of a page, yet this confusion was entirely welcome. Ford’s style of using multiple emotions in his stories is one of the reasons I enjoy his work so much. There’s a subtle humour to Sorry For Your Trouble, making it easily synonymous with Ford’s other literary dives into everyday American life.
However, in Sorry For Your Trouble, Ford also looks toward the other side of the Atlantic in many of the stories, particularly focusing on Ireland. We flit between the countries not only between stories, but also within the individual narratives themselves. Travel is a consistent theme throughout this collection, as Ford highlights this sense of drifting between places. Whether intentional or not, many of the travel-focused stories also made me question the purpose of movement itself.
There was an almost monotonous feeling to the act, as if Ford was aiming to show the sheer pointlessness of travel at all. I often felt as though I was drifting alongside the characters. The sense of displacement was, at times, overwhelming. Is this what comes with moving forward within life, both in a metaphorical and physical manner?
I enjoyed the uncomfortableness of this theme, however, and also the inward analysis it sparked for myself. Feeling unanchored while reading was a bizarre yet refreshing feeling, yet it also meant that the actual act of crossing the ocean had been brilliantly captured by Ford. Many of our characters have a muddled sense of place and belonging, both in a literal and emotional way. As someone who doesn’t belong to either community mentioned, this act of flitting between cultures was conveyed wonderfully, highlighting the importance of location…or lack of it.
While every story has earned its rightful place in this collection, there were a few spectacular standouts. Interestingly, my favourites were also some of the shorter pieces. I actually felt that that the longer short stories in Sorry For Your Trouble were a tad too long in some cases – this was particularly true for the final piece, Second Language, where the middle of the narrative failed to really hold my attention. While I did like the subtle shift in tone, it came across as a little muddled. Another ‘long short story’ in the collection is The Run of Yourself. Though I did enjoy this more than Second Language, again I think my investment in the story and characters was beginning to waver by the end.
These are small criticisms in an otherwise stellar collection, however, and I’ll finish by highlighting my three most enjoyable stories. My absolute favourite has to be Leaving for Kenosha. The intelligent, sassy, ahead-of-her-time young girl is a fantastic character. The relationship between father and daughter is tender and raw, a beautiful exploration into the pressures of modern parenting and what happens when the family dynamic and structure begins to unravel. Every character in this story had their unique charm, making for a surprisingly sweet yet sad narrative, which also manages to weave in some hard-hitting social and political commentary.
Despite Ford’s identity as a writer well-versed in creating men going through various crises within his literature, the appeal of Crossing to me was actually the group of gaggling American mid-Western women. This lovable, distinctive group ambushes our narrator with their charm and overwhelming personalities. I could almost heard the accents and the giggles, and was filled with a sense of pure excitement for them. These emotions perfectly juxtaposed the feelings of our narrator, who is travelling to Ireland to finalise his divorce. While there is a degree of hope in this act, it is subdued compared to our ladies’ outlook, making for the perfect yin and yang effect.
Finally, I want to give a special mention to Nothing to Declare. The first story immediately piqued my interest and reminded me why I felt drawn to Ford’s writing initially. It’s a heated, intense story of two lovers, that perfectly captures the sordid, grimy nature of hotel bars/rooms, yet also demonstrates how excitingly spontaneous the nature of travel can be. The woman in the story is strong yet hard to read, fiercely independent compared to her mundane male counterpart. It’s a fantastic story that quickly introduces us to the main themes of the collection, while pointing to Ford’s qualities as a writer.
Sorry For Your Trouble is published by Bloomsbury and is available here.
Richard Ford was born in Jackson, Mississippi. He has published eight novels and four collections of stories, including The Sportswriter, Independence Day, The Lay of the Land and the New York Times bestseller, Canada. Independence Day was awarded the Pulitzer Prize and the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, the first time the same book had won both prizes. Let Me Be Frank with You was shortlisted for the Pulitzer Prize in 2015. His work has been translated into twenty-eight languages, and most recently was awarded the Prix Femina Étranger in France and the Princess of Asturias Prize for Literature in Spain. Richard Ford lives in Maine with his wife.
Richard Ford was born in Jackson, Mississippi in 1944. He has published seven novels and three collections of stories, including The Sportswriter, Independence Day, A Multitude of Sins and, most recently, The Lay of the Land. Independence Day was awarded the Pulitzer Prize, and the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, the first time the same book had won both prizes.
Reviewed by Mariah Feria
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