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Sex, God, And All The Rest 

Ford explores the illusions of love

Richard Ford's fiction is rooted in the idea that life is very fragile in the way we experience it; altering one small part changes everything. In his latest collection, the best stories reflect this notion that in the randomness of life "we are all implicated in the lives of others whether we precisely know how or don't."

Drawn toward images and themes of adultery, Ford brings together a solid collection of 10 new stories peopled with men and women suffering a spiritual congestion. Hoping to find God in each other's arms, Ford's characters seek forgiveness and excitement in the bedroom, but what they learn is that "no one gets away unmarked." And in the end, they realize they "really hadn't cared as much as they thought" -- someone finds out, their feelings are hurt, and forgetting is never easy. And in a remarkable moment of clarity, they discover that no matter who they really were or what they believed themselves to be, they were helpless to change in the first place.

Ford is deft at dreaming up voyeuristic episodes sizzling with forbidden sexual attraction and longing, setting them into motion, and reveling in doling out the dirt when they begin to fall apart, as they always do.

Johnny, the narrator of "Reunion," is forced to relive a past affair through a chance encounter with his former lover's husband, Mack Bolger, when their paths cross in New York's Grand Central Station. When he notices Mack standing in the crowded concourse, Johnny is struck by the strange impulse to strike up a conversation with the man he had only met in person on one previous occasion, which happened to be during a semi-violent altercation with one another in a St. Louis hotel room.

Johnny relates that what went on between him and Mack's wife was merely "an ordinary adultery." There was no great love affair, merely a spirited and thrilling encounter that became disappointing and ignoble, and in the end "caused as many people as possible unhappiness, embarrassment and heartache."

But what Ford reveals here is that the end of these affairs is really never the end at all, but merely the beginning of a much more complicated mode of existence in which one is left to pick up the pieces and begin anew.

And such is the case with "Charity." Into this emotionally complex tableau of love and forgiveness (or un-forgiveness), Ford explores what happens to a marriage when the affair is over.

Thom Marshall, a married ex-cop turned successful toymaker, is caught by his wife Nancy having an affair with a silkscreen artist, Crystal Blue. While on vacation in Maine, Tom suggests they leave their old lives and bad memories in Maryland behind them and move to someplace new. "Because," he says "it's still not ruined up here. And because I know too much about myself where I am, and I'd like to find out something new before I get too old."

But for Nancy there are no simple answers, only what she views as Thom's selfish disregard for the feelings and desires of others. After all, "Thom wasn't trying to improve life for her, no matter what he thought. Only his."

In the final story of the collection, Ford lures you into the dark recesses of the "Abyss," detailing the unfolding of an affair between two realtors from Connecticut, Frances Bilandic and Howard Cameron. Through the particular perspectives of these two characters, Ford is able to evoke entire landscapes, both interior and exterior. On a trip to a Phoenix sales conference, Frances and Howard plan to visit the Grand Canyon, but on the two-hour car ride there, they discover that the instinctual carnal attraction that had once led them into a different sexual dimension has suddenly deteriorated into something more akin to a sloppy adolescent kiss. That said, once you sink into the meat of the narrative, you'll find a story full of surprise, self-realization, and a multitude of sins. And, perhaps, even a bitter glimpse of the truth.

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