I've read most of the works of Richard Ford, and remain an immense fan. His prose style is appealing, and his books contain incisive and unsettlingly depictions of America's middle class Independence Day and The Sportswriter as well as achingly powerful descriptions of the despair which is dominant in the lives of America's underclass Rock Springs.
I first read "The Ultimate Good Luck" 25 years ago; remember that at the time I did not consider it the equal to his other works. But perhaps it was only those "externalities" that were life back then that colored my opinion, so I just re-read it in the spirit of a re-evaluation.
The story is set in Oaxaca, Mexico, and involves the interactions of Americans with the Mexican ruling class as well as their underworld, which, as is so often the case, are intertwined and interdependent. Sonny is in jail, the result of his involvement in the illegal drug trade. Sonny's sister Rae, along with her on-again, off-again boyfriend, Harry Quinn, are attempting to spring Sonny, and that involves money. Their principal Mexican contact is the lawyer Berhardt, who may be playing it straight, in his efforts to have Sonny released, but then, of course, may not. Deats, an American hustler in the drug trade, plays a scene with Quinn that could have been ripped from the movie, Pulp Fiction except for the fact that the movie was produced 13 years after the book, so it very well may have been the other way around, and I'd welcome comments from the more knowledgeable about that.
Ford saw so many of the elements that have only grown exponentially over the last 30 years: the violence inherent in the trade of illegal drugs that is ripping Mexican society apart, with the corresponding "collateral damage" to the Americans who venture too close, and whose appetite for these drugs is the root cause. And everyone is corrupted. Ford's style is literary "pointillism," the depiction of one aspect of the character's lives, then shifting to another, and in the end, hopefully when you step back to enjoy it all, you are dazzled by the luminance.
There are a fair share of Ford's pithy insights woven into the tale: "All the colleges he'd been in didn't teach him what he'd learned in two years out of the world, that once strangers you couldn't see started shooting guns at you and trying to set you on fire up in the sky, plans didn't take you too far." "It was never verifiable if most Mexican houses were half finished or half torn down." "It was what made them tourists. They looked and didn't see." Nothing remarkably original; and certainly the latter two are a mutual exchange of prejudices.
Harry Quinn is a "troubled-Vietnam-War-veteran" and yes, there are some in the real world, but their stereotypical depiction in books and movies is near universal. So, this time around I paid particular attention to how well Ford did on this issue. Alas, he relied on a pastiche of those Hollywood images, subtly woven into the story for sure, but fundamentally false, even impossible. Did Quinn fly helicopters (p 78), or was he dug in at Khe Sanh (p 112-113 - and the ultimate firebase is misspelled in the book!)? Was he also really at Phan Rang, where a woman said something to him in French (p 93)? And did he also stretch out on the China Beach (p 67)? Yes, you can have and do it all, but only in Hollywood, and just like in Hollywood, the denouement conforms to the cliché.
So... the falseness nags, and I wonder how much else is in the tale, in areas that I am less certain about, like Mexico, or the drug trade. Enjoy the individual dots on the canvas, like "...when the lake changed from the natural sequins in afternoon to dull oyster grey..." but when I stepped back, the overall picture was out of focus, and so my original verdict is confirmed, as they say in the law business: 4-stars.