The Drowned Life is Jeffrey Ford’s third short story collection and it may be
his best yet.
The title story that kicks things off is nothing short of
a minor miracle, a surrealistic adventure that’s equally heartbreaking,
harrowing, and funny. And I mean honestly, laugh out loud three or four times,
In the story, Ford’s everyman, Hatch, finds that his financial
woes (along with the dark specter of world events and working a soul sapping
job) have manifested as a growing tide that he must continuously bail himself
out of. When he finally loses the will to keep bailing, he finds himself in
“Drowned Town,” an underwater city populated by everyone who has “gone under.”
One of the risks of surrealism, it seems to me, is that once the reader
has entered a dreamscape, the consequences for the characters can lose weight.
One of the most impressive things Ford does in “The Drowned Life” (and
elsewhere) is retain every bit of gravitas even given the absurdity of the
milieu. When Hatch calls home to apologize to his wife for going under, the
pathos is genuine. When Hatch tries to navigate through Drowned Town to rescue
his son from a rowdy party, his desperation is palpable.
The title story
sets the bar incredibly high for whatever follows, yet Ford manages to almost
reach that level several more times – in the mobius strip plots of “Under the
Bottom of the Lake” and “The Dismantled Invention of Fate,” the Bradbury-esque
“The Night Whiskey,” and the inspired premise of “The Scribble Mind” (you’ll
never look at a two-year-old’s artwork the same way again after reading this
Critics love to proclaim a writer as having an “original voice.”
Ford’s an original, to be sure, but to describe his voice, the adjective that
first comes to my mind is appealing. I know of no writer who employs such
b.s.-free prose, yet still manages to be downright poetic so often. The Drowned
Life is a perfect introduction to Ford’s style and, once you’re done, you’ll
want to read everything else he’s written. Take my word for it.