The thing about Ford is that he's unpigeonholeable, and yet his work is always recognizable as his work. There's an unmistakeable voice. There's exploration. There's a high literary standard. There's always something unexpected to be had coming to a new piece by Ford. He apparently never heard of same-old, same-old or just sticking to a winning formula, like say, only writing thrillers about long-kept biblical secrets (although I would totally read Jeff Ford's Da Vinci Code) or legal thrillers (I would also completely read Jeff Ford's The Firm).
His short stories are mostly found in speculative fiction magazines and anthologies (or in his spanking new collection, The Empire of Ice Cream). His novels have been categorized or marketed as literary fiction, fantasy and mystery. In reality, they're all of the above. And the sad thing is, this crazy world we live in, it doesn't make things easy for readers or writers who are interested in finding such a wide range of work. It hides things. My great fear is always that there's someone out there who loved The Portrait of Mrs. Charbuque, but has absolutely no idea that the short stories and The Girl in the Glass exist. Or, perhaps more troubling, someone who thinks they wouldn't like the other stuff because it's published in a different genre. So, that's why I chose this book to nominate -- that and that I loved it and enjoyed it more than any other novel I read in the last year and that I fear it's so successful at what it's doing some people might dismiss it without seeing what's under the surface.
I wrote on my own site about Girl last year and (stealing a trick from Sarvas) I'm going to quote what I said then:
This book is as sweet a read as any magnificent con in action, and isn't all real storytelling a con of some kind anyway? The story is anchored by the relationships between three scammers working together to bilk the wealthy bereaved: aging con man, Thomas Schell; a Mexican teenager adopted from the streets and playing the part of Ondoo the Mystic, Diego; and good-hearted heavy, Antony Cleopatra. During a con, Schell sees a ghostly little girl reflected in glass, which ends up landing the three in the midst of an investigation into the ritual murder of a rich family's young daughter. The book is dedicated to the author's own son, to me tellingly appropriate, as I read this as being very much about fatherhood--and add to that family, in the larger sense of the word. Vonda the Rubber Lady doesn't help out for nothing, nor does Hal Izzle, or Belinda bring her pigeons; likewise, Merlin protects Morgan for reasons that seem instinctive. (Not that those are the only things Girl is about. One of this novel's great virtues is that it manages to be about many things, as all good novels do.)
I hesitate to give away much more, because I don't want to deprive anyone of the pleasure of reading this book. A couple of words though, for the darker side of the novel. The Klan and eugenics figure prominently, as does the mass deportation of Mexicans during the time period, and the backdrop of other people's poverty in contrast to the rich living of our main characters as they live off the obscenely rich. This balances out the novel's humor and prevents it from ever seeming slight. And the ending, the ending is perfect, absolutely right in the way so few endings are--and especially considering that the ending takes place much later than the conclusion of the story's main action, with Diego looking back late in life on these events.
So yeah, read the damn thing. You won't be sorry. Here's a little excerpt to entice you further. From the first chapter:
Every time the widow Morrison cried, she farted, long and low like a call from beyond the grave. I almost busted a gut but had to keep it under my turban. There could certainly be no laughter from Ondoo, which was me, the spiritual savant of the subcontinent.
We were sitting in the dark, holding hands in a circle, attempting to contact Garfield Morrison, the widow's long-dead husband, who fittingly enough had succumbed to mustard gas in a trench in France. Thomas Schell, ringmaster of this soiree, sat across from me, looking, in the glow from the candlelight, like a king of corpses himself -- eyes rolled back, possessed of a bloodless pallor, wearing an expression straight from a nightmare of frantic pursuit.
To my right, holding fast to the gloved dummy hand that stuck out of the end of my jacket sleeve, was the widow's sister, Luqueer, a thin, dried-out cornstalk of a crone, decked with diamonds, whose teeth rattled like shaken dice, and next to her was the young, beautiful niece (I forget her name), whom I rather wished was holding my prosthesis.
On my other side was the widow herself, and between her and Schell sat Milton, the niece's fiancé, your typical scoffing unbeliever. He'd told us during our preliminary meeting with the widow that he was skeptical of our abilities; a fast follower of Dunninger and Houdini. Schell had nodded calmly at this news but said nothing.
We didn't have to sit there long before Garfield made his presence known by causing the flame on the candle at the center of the table to gutter and dance.
"Are you there?" called Schell, releasing his hands from those of the participants on either side of him and raising his arms out in front.
He let a few moments pass to up the ante, and then, from just behind Milton's left shoulder, came a mumble, a grumble, a groan. Milton jerked his head around to see who it was and found only air. The niece gave a little yelp and the widow called out, "Garfield, is it you?"
Then Schell opened his mouth wide, gave a sigh of agony, and a huge brown moth flew out. It made a circuit of the table, brushing the lashes of the young lady, causing her to shake her head in disgust. After perching briefly on the widow's dress, just above her heart (where earlier Schell had inconspicuously marked her with a dab of sugar water), it took to circling the flame. The table moved slightly, and there came a rhythmic noise, as if someone was rapping his knuckle against it. Which, in fact, someone was: it was me, from underneath, using the knuckle of my big toe.
Ghostly sobbing filled the dark, which was my cue to slowly move my free arm inside my jacket, reach out at the collar for the pendant on my neck, and flip it around to reveal the back, which held a glass-encased portrait of Garfield. While the assembled family watched the moth orbit closer and closer to fiery destruction, Schell switched on the tiny beacon in his right sleeve while with his left hand he pumped the rubber ball attached to a thin hose beneath his jacket. A fine mist of water vapor shot forth from a hole in the flower on his lapel, creating an invisible screen in the air above the table.
Just as the moth ditched into the flame, which surged with a crackle, sending a thin trail of smoke toward the ceiling, the beam of light from within Schell's sleeve hit my pendant, and I adjusted my position to direct the reflection upward into the vapor.
"I'm here, Margaret," said a booming voice from nowhere and everywhere. Garfield's misty visage materialized above us. He stared hard out of death, his top lip curled back, his nostrils flared, as if even in the afterlife he'd caught wind of his wife's grief. The widow's sister took one look at him, croaked like a frog, and conked out cold onto the table. The widow herself let go of my hand and reached out toward the stern countenance.
"Garfield," she said. "Garfield, I miss you."
"And I you," said the phantom.
"Are you in pain?" she asked. "Are you all right?"
"I'm fine. All's well here," he said.
"How do I know it's really you?" she asked, holding one hand to her heart.
Come back the week of May 1 for all sorts of fun -- there will be book discussion, Jeff Ford guest blogging, a podcast to remember and other tricks of the light!