Americans embarrassed embarrassed

Elaine Feinstein takes delivery of a melancholy message from the US male
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Women with Men by Richard Ford, Harvill, pounds 14.99

These quiet stories of bewilderment between the sexes are marked by a peculiarly contemporary loneliness. The men are querulous, mind-blind and childish; the women preserve their inner world as best they can.

Austin, the narrator of the first story, is introduced with great precision. From the first moment we catch him smiling at the edge of a publishing party in Paris we know his exact notch on the corporation ladder, the length of his marriage, his unease in the French language, and his habit of picking up presentable young women on jaunts abroad. He has a certain pathos, as if such womanising is little more than pursuit of a self his own life has never supplied.

The woman he sets his sights on in Paris is Josephine. She is in the throes of divorce, living alone with her son, and her appeal lies in her sadness. On Austin's last night in Paris, she drives him back to his hotel, and they sit for some time in the car. She lets Austin hold her and kiss her, as if it does not matter much one way or the other, and he is too disconcerted to push their intimacy further.

As far as Austin is concerned, his long marriage has been a happy one, though regrettably no longer satisfying all his needs. Back in America, he discovers his wife sees their relationship rather differently. In the expensive restaurant to which he has taken her as a placatory gesture, she astonishes him by announcing she has decided to leave. Austin enjoys a momentary sense of relief that her gesture has turned him from villain into victim, but is nonplussed by her evident dislike.

What more natural than to take a plane for Paris? Yet Austin has been more disturbed by his wife's summary description of him than he realised. It takes him some days to contact Josephine, and murmur his belief that there is something between them. When he does, he meets only irritation. "What?" she asks. And that short question is the nub of the story, not the ensuing melodrama of Austin losing her little son Leo in a Paris park.

The second story has an American rural landscape. A marriage has broken up. A boy is to be taken off to his mother by his feisty aunt Doris, who had once been a rival for his father's love. For a time, it looks as if the story will centre on the boy's sexual initiation by his aunt. Instead, it turns on Doris's encounter with Barney, an Indian she meets in a bar. When police arrive looking for Barney, Doris unexpectedly directs them to the lavatory where he is hiding, and there Barney is gunned down.

Doris's motives are never clarified. It may be an act of vengeance, since she was once married to and abandoned by an Indian, or it may be, as she explains to the boy, because she intuited that Barney has murdered his wife. In either case, it is an unpredictable, almost whimsical betrayal.

In the third story, we are back in Europe, this time with Matthews, an undistinguished teacher of African-American literature, whose first novel is about to be translated into French. Matthews is accompanied by blonde, buxom Helen, whom he has taken up with in the aftermath of a collapsed marriage. When Matthews' publisher explains his inability to keep their appointment, he and Helen determine to enjoy their visit to Paris as the most unsophisticated of tourists.

Helen turns out to have her own agenda, however, and Matthews begins to feel at the periphery of his own trip. Helen is looking for something, we gradually realise, because she knows she is dying of cancer, and is too honest to accept Matthews' mumbled words of love. Their hotel is placed at the edge of a famous cemetery.

If there is any spiritual solace at the edge of mortality, these stories show none of it between men and women. Richard Ford is arguably the finest American novelist of his generation, and these stories have all his usual chill veracity; but his is a bleak vision.