Ballycastle (Photo by David Cannon/Getty Images)

Men and women and men

John Self reviews Sorry for Your Trouble by Richard Ford, This is Pleasure by Mary Gaitskill and Cleanness by Garth Greenwell

Richard Ford is a survivor who may well have the best claim to anyone now living to the title of Great American Novelist. That is not unqualified praise, as it requires a commitment to a certain well-established realism, and is essentially a twentieth-century accolade, passed from white man to white man: first Bellow, then Updike, and now? Don DeLillo is too inconsistent. Roth is too dead.

Ford ticks — sorry, checks — the boxes, particularly with his chronicles of American everyman Frank Bascombe (Rabbit by Richard, if you like), which currently run to three long novels and four novellas, with another book in the works.

He was also grouped in the 1980s as a “Dirty Realist” with the likes of Raymond Carver and Tobias Wolff, though that was a marketing fiction by Granta and their work had nothing in common other than being written in English. Carver anyway is dead, and Wolff has published so little in the last 30 years — one novel, one memoir, two collections of stories — that to the hungry reader, and he has many, he might as well be.

Ford, alone, keeps going. And he is rare among major novelists in having as much commitment to the short form as to the novel: here we are, in his seventy-seventh year, with his fourth collection of stories. They are always themed — chronicles of adultery (A Multitude of Sins), a Hemingway-inspired trio of novellas (Women with Men) — though as you may have spotted, they all work within a larger framework that might be termed: Women and men, men and women: it’ll never work. But in Sorry for Your Trouble, the topics are more varied and the theme is subcutaneous: the characters are mostly Irish-Americans, either at home or back in the old country.

Sorry for Your Trouble
by Richard Ford, Bloomsbury, £16.99

The clue was in the title. And for a Northern Irishman like me, there’s a purely chauvinistic thrill to be had in seeing Ballycastle, Ballymena or a Translink bus mentioned in a Richard Ford book, a bit like seeing your street in an establishing shot from a Hollywood film.

Down in the details, though, the stories could — as a Victoria Wood character once disparagingly said of Fawlty Towers — be set anywhere; there’s thankfully no attempt to define or interrogate the Irish character (and the book features only one redhead). That doesn’t stop the non-Irish characters in the book from trying. “It must be nice to be Irish,” says one. “Not to have to care about anything.” But they do care, mostly about all the usual stuff: bereavement, sexual confusion, domestic bliss turning to domestic blitz.

It turns out that straddling two identities — Irish and American — is good practice for the unexpected ambivalence that many of these life events bring. In “Displaced”, a boy whose father has died finds that “the air around you is different. Once, that air contained you fully. But now an opening’s cut, which feels frightening, yet not so frightening.”

Ford’s characters have what Fitzgerald called “an urban distaste for the concrete” — little wonder that one of them, reading Forster and Woolf, likes that generation’s “spirited lack of certainty.” But that is what makes Ford’s fiction work, and why we identify with his characters so fully as they vacillate on everything: knowing things completes them, kills them. Not knowing is what makes us human.

Tied to this is an appetite for euphemism, a way of saying what can’t quite be faced, particularly when it comes to the illnesses of old age that dog some of Ford’s ageing protagonists. But what beautifully judged euphemisms they are, that speak so effectively of the characters’ struggles psychological as well as physical. “A breast-type cancer.” A “small stroke” that leaves one man “‘tingly’ but still workable”, with his speech “a little wiggly”. But sooner or later, as one man coping with his wife’s suicide finds, “the abject gallows-drop of clear fact” comes to greet you.

As those languorous Frank Bascombe books show, Ford works best at length, and the strongest stories here are “The Run of Yourself” (another Irishism) and “Second Language”, both novella-length. They give him the space to explore his characters’ dilemmas and rack up some excellent long exchanges (Ford is particularly good at family arguments).

Yet there is no slack in the sentences, which are consistently on point: “Here, of course, was never precisely the point you’d attained. Here was a point you’d passed already but didn’t realise.” Everything, one character says, “grinds down to being bearable”, and several of Ford’s characters bear it by reading other writers. And sometimes reading books like this — substantial, capable, satisfying — is the best comfort of all: as many of us can attest right now.

This is Pleasure, by Mary Gaitskill, Serpent’s Tail, £7.99

Comfort is not high on the agenda of Mary Gaitskill, who has moved slowly from the fringes of literature to somewhere close to the centre over her 30-year career. Or perhaps the culture has moved closer to her, with her interest in writing about female sexuality; either way, she is now of the status to have a novella published in a standalone hardback edition.

This is Pleasure is a two-hander, with fast friends Margot and Quin, two middle-aged New Yorkers who work in publishing (I know!), taking turns to address the reader. Quin, whose status as a bad ’un is marked for us early on by the disclosure that he wears a silk scarf everywhere he goes, has been removed from his job following allegations of sexual impropriety against a female employee.

So far, ho-hum, though Margot comes not to bury Quin but to praise him: more or less. She too had once been on the wrong end of Quin’s questing hands, had firmly resisted him, had no trouble since, and seems to have difficulty understanding why other women don’t treat him the same way. In both accounts, Quin is charming: of course he is, otherwise how could he get away with the spankings and gropings that parade through the pages?

But what makes This is Pleasure such a treat to read is not the complexity of its approach to a very “now” issue, nor even its liveliness — and this is a book that jumps joyfully like a salmon in autumn — but the way it immerses us so thoroughly in two strong, distinctive but plausible characters. It feels like the essence of good fiction.

If Ford and Gaitskill are the old generation of American critical darlings, Garth Greenwell is the new. His 2016 debut What Belongs to You was heralded as, variously, a worthy successor to James Baldwin and Virginia Woolf, the first great novel of its year and — evergreen oxymoron — an instant classic. His second book, Cleanness, is a series of stories — Greenwell calls it a “song cycle” — from the same nameless narrator as What Belongs to You. If the reviews for his debut were hyperbolic, then advance praise for Cleanness goes beyond stratospheric and into science fiction. (My favourite is from poet Frank Bidart: “Garth Greenwell, whose first book is a masterpiece, amazingly has written a second book that is also a masterpiece.”)

Our narrator is still living in the Bulgarian capital, Sofia, teaching English and having sex with other men. Greenwell’s fiction is about the connections that sex enables, disables and replaces, and no thought is left unexplored in his muted, dreamlike style.

That style has a strangely desolatory, colourless quality, partly from the setting of a grey city where people are always on edge and fuck on bare mattresses in “poorly maintained buildings” made of “discoloured concrete”; partly from the long sentences, long paragraphs and lack of speechmarks or emphases, more commonly a European literary construct than an American one; and partly from the absence of levity throughout: only in the final chapter do we see people laughing and having fun. But fun is in the eye of the beholder, and in its long spectrum from pleasure to passion, Greenwell and his characters are firmly at the far end.

Cleanness, by Garth Greenwell, Picador, £14.99

It’s not just about sex — people talk, go to restaurants, attend anti-government protests — but sex is the wire through which the book’s current runs, and features in most of the stories. It is most powerful, moving and disturbing in two matching scenes that come at opposite ends of the book, one where our narrator takes a submissive role with a dominant partner (and is ultimately raped) and the other where he himself takes the dominant role.

The sex is not written with the aesthetic balance of Alan Hollinghurst, or Adam Mars-Jones’s witty desire to please; it is graphic and matter-of-fact. But it’s a measure of Greenwell’s skill that what in the first scene seems like strange news from another star, comes by the second to feel fitting and right.

Greenwell can turn an elegant phrase — as when his narrator and lover stand by the swollen Danube, “watching the huge weight of it sliding past” — but I didn’t take much joy from Cleanness, even when I could recognise his skill. Tastes differ. His work is a perfect example of Alan Bennett’s observation that they should have a sign at the entrance to the National Gallery saying, “You don’t have to like everything.”

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try three issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £5

Critic magazine cover