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Richard Ford's "Women With Men"

By Jessica English

JULY 28, 1997:  Sometimes, despite what they say, writing about what you know is the most difficult challenge imaginable. Maintaining merciless realism throughout such a piece is nearly impossible. But Richard Ford does it effortlessly. The people he writes about all suffer from the same condition: a numbness created by the day-in and day-out consistency of ordinary life.

Since Independence Day, Ford's sequel novel to The Sportswriter that won him both the Pulitzer Prize and the PEN/Faulkner Award, he's often been called the "Great American Novelist." And it's quite possible that not another modern realist compares to Ford. Women with Men, Ford's first collection of stories in a decade, explores the nagging conditions of existence by which relationships are destroyed. "The Womanizer," "Jealous" and "Occidentals," three long stories, follow Ford's sharp realistic style and are alternately rewarding and disappointing, echoing the internal drama of Frank Bascombe, the main character from The Sports-writer and Independence Day, and at other times losing intimacy with the characters.

These stories, about 100 pages each, seem more accurately described as vignettes about people who have been beaten down by the banality of their common lives. Some of Ford's jaded characters seek to break from their malaise, if only for a little while, by having affairs, drinking, escaping completely from their life by "becoming" something or someone else. All of Ford's characters are in the midst of an existential crisis.

The stage for these stories, as is true with Ford's novels generally, is set around the great American holiday--that time of year, we all know, when life seems most hopeless. The Sportswriter took place during Easter, near the anniversary of the death of Bascombe's young son; and, obviously, Independence Day, the Fourth of July. In Women with Men, Ford takes on the ultimate symbols of desperation and loneliness: Thanksgiving and Christmas.

In most instances, Ford's relationship with the characters borders on clinical: The men in his stories are written on a last-name basis only, while most of the women are addressed by first and last name. But each is a carefully constructed study into the malcontents, otherwise known as normal Americans within the workaday world, and this rigid quality makes it only easier to slip into their bitter and cold existence.

"The Womanizer" and the last story, "Occidentals," seem completely parallel. Both stories are set in Paris, and in both, a novel by an estranged husband figures prominently. The shallow love affairs seem similar in that they are seeking some personal fulfillment. The huge difference is that, in "Occidentals," the protagonist seems to go further into the mind of Ford. This ex-husband, ex-professor clings to a beautiful, older woman (though unlikely since he is middle-aged himself) seeking a diversion from constantly thinking of his own life. As a novelist, "he was a novice--a college professor who'd jumped out into the wider world," Ford writes, "plus he hadn't believed his novel was really good enough in the way it depicted ordinary, middle-class people caught in the grip of small, internal dilemmas of their own messy concoction." Seeking something spiritual, something to pull himself away from this sinking feeling, a topic hinted at earlier in the stories, Charlie Matthews begins to wonder if the spiritual component he needs might be love.

"Occidentals" is definitely premium Ford writing. But, unfortunately, not all of the work within Women with Men is up to par. The only true disappointment is that sometimes, the stories drag on and on, filled with ramblings about the streets of Paris, distracting the reader from analysis of Ford's complex character sketches. It is Ford's skill in creating these characters--ordinary, middle-class characters--that make him the "Great American Novelist." Like the sportswriter, like you and I, the characters in these three stories suffer from discontent, a result of their humdrum common lives. As Ford writes of Martin Austin, the eponymous womanizer from the first story, "He thought ordinary life had the potential to grind you into dust ... and sometimes unusual measures were called for." Ford continues to capture perfectly this condition of ordinary life with that sharp irony and unmatched realism that he became famous for. (Knopf, cloth, $23)

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