Missed Chances and What-Ifs in ‘Sorry for Your Trouble’

In a remarkable return to form, Richard Ford in his sixth book of short fiction, Sorry for Your Trouble, dazzles in his portrayal of later middle-age. Though the stories center on older men and women, they imbue that same vitality and richness seen in Ford’s first collection Rock Springs (1987). Yet, in some ways, the nine stories of this collection are a world apart from that earlier portrayal of America. In truth, these latest stories are reminiscent of the great William Trevor.

The opening story, “Nothing to Declare,” sets the tone for the book by showcasing Ford’s silky prose and his writerly obsessions with missed chances and what-ifs. In this story, two past lovers reunite by chance after thirty-five years. The situation then unfolds through dual timelines: the present-day lawyers’ office meeting of Sandy McGuinness and Alix (though he knew her years ago as Barbara) in New Orleans and a past college trip together to Iceland. Ford seems intent on showing us his aptitude for description and clever detail, for the real estate that surrounds his often successful and well-off characters. In this case, Sandy and Alix seem undermined only by tricks of the mind, of the limits of memory: “Still, so odd not to remember her sooner. Though no odder than that a woman he’d nonchalantly loved in college should turn up now and here. She was thinner, fitter. She didn’t look fifty-four. He still saw himself as young. Youngest among the partners. There was no template for these things.” Their physical prowess — and attractiveness — established, sparks of their past desires comes back to test them both. Little is resolved over the course of the story — a few loose ends get tied up, but not much else. Instead the story’s scope becomes an elegant portrayal of how their lives diverged and then came back together, even if only briefly.

Many of the other stories also drift into focus in a pleasurable way. The stories feel looser and dreamier than those in Rock Springs and seem to reflect the nature of experience, of narrators looking back to earlier times. Regret and discontentment figure heavily in the stories and often manifest in deaths and divorces and past affairs, and in the people who have vanished along the way. In “Happy” for example, the eponymous Happy Kamper informs her cast of friends of Mick Riordan’s death, an old school New York editor. The ensuing ensemble of friends gather to celebrate and mourn the passing of Riordan. Undoubtedly, this story revels in a world of privilege and whiteness and yet this is a milieu that Ford insightfully understands and excavates.

The book is anchored by the centerpiece “The Run of Yourself.” This fifty-seven-page story follows Peter Boyce, a New Orleans lawyer, as he comes to terms with his wife’s suicide and his future decisions on how he will live the rest of his life. It becomes a story of rebirth, of self-definition, and moving past to see what the future can hold for him. Unsurprisingly, there is an affair with a younger woman, yet in Ford’s capable hands this cliché feels earned and a natural progression of Peter’s life. Many of the other stories make similar moves, yet they rarely feel repetitive. Indeed, the collection conveys a sense that Ford, as in his Frank Bascombe quartet, is masterfully playing with theme and variation.

In a late-career expansion of his literary repertoire, Ford in Sorry for Your Trouble navigates territory once governed by William Trevor — sad stories of quiet lives in dreary, overcast Ireland and the UK. With nods to Ireland, to Trevor’s literary legacy, overtly brimming in some of the stories, Ford gloms onto these Anglo-Irish roots for his own benefit. Transposed to the American landscape, a country supposedly full of brio and optimism, Ford’s stories offer up a greater sense of irony and disenchantment, that the characters’ lives could have been more.

FICTION
Sorry for Your Trouble
By Richard Ford
Ecco
May 12, 2020
Paperback February 16, 2021