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Sorry For Your Trouble: Richard Ford's short stories offer pleasurable journey through life's setbacks

Short Stories Sorry For Your Trouble Richard Ford Bloomsbury, 176 pages, hardback €20.39; e-book £7.96

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Wise words: Ford beautifully tackles the bewilderment of man’s elderly years and mortality

Wise words: Ford beautifully tackles the bewilderment of man’s elderly years and mortality

Sorry For Your Trouble by Richard Ford

Sorry For Your Trouble by Richard Ford

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Wise words: Ford beautifully tackles the bewilderment of man’s elderly years and mortality

The main thing, and indeed the best thing, about short stories is that they get to the point. Richard Ford has a deep understanding of the fact that brevity is the soul of wit. He writes with a sparse beauty.

The main thing, and indeed the best thing, about short stories is that they get to the point. Richard Ford has a deep understanding of the fact that brevity is the soul of wit. He writes with a sparse beauty.

His new collection, Sorry For Your Trouble, is mostly about men facing hard times with the advance of age and coping with the bewilderment that comes when life doesn't stay true to the best laid plans. His turn of phrase is admirable, even when the outlook is bleak.

Take, for instance from the opener, 'Nothing To Declare', the first of many brief encounters he explores: "The woman wasn't tall, but was slender in a brown linen dress, a tailored dress that set off her tan and showed her well-drawn body. She'd glanced past him twice - possibly more. A flickering look asking to be thought accidental, but could be understood as acknowledgement. She'd smiled, then looked away, a smile that possibly she knew him, or had. So peculiar, he thought, not to remember. Eventually he would."

And so the inspection of the male mind continues. In 'The Run of Yourself', a legal eagle from New Orleans gets over his wife's early death when a chance encounter with a young woman across barstools leads to an overnight stay and a spot of morning beachcombing. In 'Second Language', Jonathan, a Texan oil baron, restarts his life with a relocation to New York and a fragile marriage. After his new wife's mother dies, Jonathan comforts her while realising they will never be soul mates. In one of the strongest tales, a lost and confused teenager is forced to come to terms with his father's death. He makes friends with Niall, a youngster of Irish extraction. Over a boozing session, Henry lets Niall kiss him, but feels deeply uncomfortable with taking the relationship to the next stage.

While Ford is perhaps best known for his Pulitzer-winning novel Independence Day, his short stories are worthy of garlands. Getting on for 80 himself, he creates avatars for his own fears, regrets and small comforts, exploring a Sliding Doors of chances spurned and bullets dodged. At least he dodged becoming the man in 'Happy' who "took on three stone and began, by his own admission, to resemble Brendan Behan in late life, if he'd made late life". Late life for Ford and his characters is still the muddle its always been, lacking any real clarity, apart from the nearness of death.

As he sums up the narrowing of things in 'Happy' (a most unhappy story): "Life - and it seemed very suddenly - was this now. And little more. Plans were smaller plans or not plans. Trips were envisioned and then put off. Friends were invited, but somehow postponed.

"Mick had simply but noticeably gotten old. And though he didn't enjoy driving anymore, he liked to be taken on rides through the little seaside towns up and down the coast. Weekapaug. Quonochontaug. Charlestown Beach. More like England than Ireland.

"The publisher was keeping him emblematically on a reduced retainer. It was understood his poet father had left him fixed enough to get out of life with dignity and money left. He remained pleasant and at least partly viable, in his own words, was still half-handsome with the extra weight that worked a hardship on his knees. His hair stayed. People that were close to him felt he was all right. And then he died."

In many ways, Sorry For Your Trouble is a book for the strange days in which we now find ourselves trapped. Ford's sense of becoming increasingly cocooned - to use that detestable word - by the weight of years serves as a metaphor for the uncertainty that surrounds us in times of lockdown, job losses and wondering what the hell the future holds.

One of his characters ponders bleakly whether "the entire passage of life, years and years, is only actually lived in the last seconds before death slams the door. All life's experience just a faulty perception. A lie, if you like".

There are lots of people in these pages with distinct levels of Irishness, but the real sense permeating the book is of displacement. Ford's people have no sense of belonging. And if that all sounds grim, he writes with a potency that captivates.

And the author does give us some reasons to be cheerful. In 'The Run of Yourself', the book's longest episode and arguably its standout, a man who needs to "re-invent himself" after his wife's suicide finds a sort of redemption in a relationship with a younger woman.

While Sorry For Your Trouble is no barrel of laughs, it is nevertheless a pleasure.

Indo Review