Quality Time by Richard Ford, 2000
The magic trick:
Presenting two people who can’t even be happy when they do something to get away from the unhappiness of their regular lives
Richard Ford is tangentially responsible for a ton of the stories that wound up here on the SSMT blog. This, despite the fact that “Quality Time” is the first story I’ve ever read by him. Well…. it’s those wonderful anthologies he curates, you see? He is a writer of stupendous taste. So now let’s see what kind of writer he is when it comes to his own work.
Based on this story? Meh. I’m not thrilled. There just isn’t enough here to grab me. Middle-aged man and woman, dissatisfied with the married/career life, meet in hotel rooms, know it can never last. Where is the twist? Where is the hook? Frankly, where is the story?
I think part of my frustration lies in the character of Jena. She strikes me as being awful in nearly every imaginable way. I’m not real impressed with Wales either. But let’s pause here. Perhaps, I’m thinking, this is the point. Perhaps these characters and the unpleasant nature of their relationship aren’t signs of poor writing but rather the desired effect.
So let’s flip the script and give Ford the benefit of the doubt. These characters are loathsome. They are sad. Wales has to edit himself, alter his conversation, try to be something he isn’t – just to secure this woman for a week’s time. It’s pathetic. It’s almost like watching a couple fight during the family vacation. Like this is the thing that you’re doing to get away from the tension! The notion that this is quality time, as named in the title, is a joke. It’s a sad, twisted joke. So there’s your hook. And that’s quite a trick on Ford’s part.
Wales took a sip of his wine and stared at her. All of this had happened to him two months ago, when he first came back to America. Not tonight. He hadn’t fought such a man at all, but had been hit as he’d said and felt about it the way he’d just told her. Only, not now. He wished, for an instant, that he could feel that force again. How satisfying that had been. The certainty. She liked this story. Perhaps it would fix something.