You aren't going to like a lot of these people. In stories such as "Kenosha" and "New Orleans," the protagonists, both lawyers, stand weirdly outside themselves, analyzing their actions as they go. They seem to go through the motions of life, not believing in much of it, but putting on a perfectly acceptable face to the world.
That's more or less the norm in "Sorry For Your Trouble," Richard Ford's short-story collection. The protagonist-narrators stand back to analyze their perches in this world in a way that most of us don't. Zeroing in on a given moment in the very moment, thinking about how it fits in with the entire context of their lives, it's the way an author — or a book critic — thinks about a story. But do real people think like this on the fly in the everyday wilds of America?
These stories are filled with people who might have enjoyed a drink with Frank Bascombe, the sportswriter turned Jersey Shore real estate agent who was the protagonist of Ford's award-winning series of four novels that began in 1986. In settings from Louisiana to Maine to Ireland, you have your chronically dissatisfied lawyers (is there another kind?), estranged husbands and wives, and partying neighbors at summer cottages. The things most people would say behind someone's back, these people say straight to the face.
You wouldn't want to follow any of them all the way through a novel. So Ford cuts from one character to another, painting them all with broad strokes. But that can allow for insights that comically tag great swaths of upper-middle class America:
"When Charlotte Porter came to pick Jonathan up in his Murray Hill Apartment in September 2002, she'd been in the city for two years — serving (realty) clients who'd found themselves empty nesters and wanting to leave Brewster, Katonah and Lake Mohawk for a Gotham victory lap before packing off to Jupiter and Hobe Sound."
In that story, "Second Language," a well-to-do recent widower meets a vivacious divorcee in Manhattan and they have a brief courtship that leads to a marriage. That ends amicably after only two years once she realizes her new husband is "a man who apparently believes in greater and greater closeness, of shared complications Whereas she really didn't, was simply not that kind of person and had never been."
Who is both smart enough to diagnose a mismatched marriage at this level, and cold enough to decide the unexamined life is the one she prefers living? Such uncommon people are common in these stories.
"Second Language" and "The Run of Yourself" are the two long stories in this collection of nine, and the latter is the most compelling. It's the tale of Peter Boyce, a bookish New Orleans lawyer, still in mourning for his Irish wife, Mae, who took her own life two years before.
He returns two summers later to the Maine community where it happened, renting a different house, but one that had intrigued them both. There he takes a long, brutally honest yet loving look at his difficult, cantankerous Mae, and realizes that being a widower is not the same as being single.
"Things happen that seem life-altering, then everything grinds down to being bearable — sometimes slightly better. Which could be a formula for doing anything you f_all wanted; or that nothing ever meant much — which he did not accept for an instant."
Peter finds his bearings, though he never seems that lost. This reader found himself only mildly intrigued by these characters, perhaps because they seem only mildly intrigued by their own lives.
It all makes for a different kind of reading experience. Ford can paint beautiful scenes, capturing moments we've either lived through or are glad we have not. In "Crossing," on a vividly drawn ferry ride across the Irish Sea, a lawyer, preparing to finalize his own divorce, recalls the moment his wife made it clear their marriage was over, and there was nothing a man, at least an honorable man, could do about that. On his way off the boat, shedding a single tear, he thinks to himself, "Most occasions, when you cried, you should've cried earlier."
OK, I take it back. You will like some of these people. This is a book you can put down; it's easy to walk away from it. But it's just as easy to pick up again. The collection is the definition of so much of modern literature, the stories of people living lives that are no more — or less — interesting than the reader's. But then why should they be?
"Accepting," thinks one of Ford's many lawyers, "was how you kept the run of yourself."