Canada, by Richard Ford, Bloomsbury, 420 pp, £18.99, ISBN: 978-0747598602
It has been twenty-five years since Richard Ford strode into the American literary limelight with two daring and distinctive books: The Sportswriter, a novel of Updikean subtlety and social range set in the well-to-do suburbs of central New Jersey; and Rock Springs, a collection of stories mostly set in rural Montana and peopled by the drifting and the dispossessed. In spite of their very different settings, these books have much in common: great care for and interest in language, its sounds and rhythms; the notion that character is provisional and to be sought in what Ford calls “the incalculable, the obscure, and the unpredictable”; and respect for the texture of felt life, with a commitment to giving the reader as true a sense as possible, physically and emotionally, of the fictive worlds being created.
But what has resonated most with readers of these fictions over the years has been their voices. Ford’s narrators get into our ears. A master of first person narrative, he creates observers who are lyrical and philosophical yet confused; situated outside the principal action but profoundly affected by it; urged on by a desire for engagement with life but consistently puzzled by and fearful of the world’s random give and take. The lilt and tone and hesitancy of these voices lure us into their owners’ lives, commanding our sympathy and providing the ideal medium for exploring Ford’s themes of longing and marginalisation. And the style that carries them is rich and malleable, always up to the task of generating the illusion of speech and (again, the words are Ford’s) “real speech’s at least superficial plausibility”.
Frank Bascombe, the failed novelist who narrates The Sportswriter and reappears Rabbit-like in ten-year increments in Independence Day and The Lay of the Land, is one of the great American voices, wistful, articulate, mature, and achingly close to the private workings of the ordinary man’s heart. But equally powerful and perhaps even more engaging is the voice that brings us the best of the stories in Rock Springs, as well as Ford’s 1990 novel Wildlife – a teenage boy, usually an only child, who faces a crisis arising from trouble his parents face. And as Bascombe is linked with the town of Haddam, New Jersey, a fictional stand-in for Princeton, these younger narrators have all lived in Great Falls, Montana and tell stories that happen around 1960.
In Canada, Ford returns after two decades to this voice and milieu. Fifteen-year-old Dell Parsons lives in Great Falls with his parents and twin sister, Berner. The family has led a transient existence, shuttling around the country as their Air Force father moved from base to base, and Dell does not feel secure. He wants a simple life. He likes school, chess, and beekeeping. He is quiet and watchful and longs for rootedness.
Though Dell judges his life as “normal”, we know from the novel’s opening sentence that what is to come is anything but: “First, I’ll tell about the robbery our parents committed. Then about the murders, which happened later.” Canada is a novel where tragedy is telegraphed. Suspense arises not from ignorance of what will happen but from the impact of the events of that fateful summer of 1960 on the lives of the twins, and on Dell’s slow search for understanding as he comes to terms with the swift manner in which ordinary life turns tragic. “The prelude to very bad things can be ridiculous,” he says in a typical aside, “but can also be casual and unremarkable. Which is worth recognizing, since it indicates where many bad events originate: from just an inch away from the everyday.”
Ford does a convincing job of showing how an everyday couple can come to a point in their lives where robbing a bank becomes a plausible option. Dell’s father, Bev Parsons, has a brittle and falsely sunny disposition. After leaving the Air Force he drifts from job to job before becoming a middleman in a scheme to sell stolen beef. Things quickly go wrong, and Bev’s partners threaten to kill him and his family if he fails to hand over two thousand dollars. Dell’s mother, Neeva, a self-styled poet and the daughter of Jewish immigrants, feels out of place in this Western airbase town. The robbery becomes her ticket out of Great Falls; with her share of the money, she plans to leave Bev and start a new life in Seattle with her children.
But Bev and Neeva are arrested soon after the crime, and the twins are left to their own devices. Impulsive and strong-willed, Berner takes off for California. Dell is brought by a friend of his mother to a small town in Saskatchewan, where he is placed in the care of her eccentric brother, who puts Dell to work in the hotel he runs. The second half of the novel follows Dell’s solitary trials on the cold Canadian plains, and his interaction with the strange character of Arthur Remlinger, whose fate, like that of Dell’s parents, is star-crossed.
Told from the vantage point of Dell’s life as an English teacher in Winnipeg fifty years after the main action, Canada is a delicately balanced narrative that pivots on his voice. The reader inhabits the boy’s – and man’s – mind as he struggles to understand why events happen as they do and what they mean. We experience the story in real time, as it were, but the elastic commentary gives us the depth of the long view and does justice to the complexity of a story pieced together across a lifetime:
What I know of the actual bank robbery itself I mostly know from my mother’s chronicle, and from issues of the Great Falls Tribune … Though I have also constructed the robbery in my head – fascinated that it should have been our parents who committed it, so ridiculous and inexplicable as to make the reportable facts inadequate as an explanation.
This patchwork of unreliable sources framed within the confused voice and the double perspective of present and past is one of the book’s great achievements. Ford is very skilful at moving seamlessly between narrative levels as Dell discovers detail and attempts to reconstruct events. The child’s perplexity in the face of unrevealed facts is nested within the adult mystery of contemplating history and discovering that the facts are not everything ‑ that often human actions and motivations remain mysterious.
The narrative mode is further enhanced by the settings. Great Falls has an emblematic force in Ford’s fiction that arises from the rhythm and resonance of its name and its lonely location in the foothills of the Rockies. Its remoteness, its transient military population, and its central place in America’s quintessential frontier state make it a natural setting for a boy wondering about where he belongs and dealing with his father’s ambiguous attitude to the rootlessness characteristic of so many Americans:
We were a family who didn’t travel unless we were moving to a new town. Staying put was a luxury, my father always said. His fondest wish was to live in one place like everybody else. A person was free to settle anywhere in our country, he believed. Where you were born meant little. That was the beauty of America.
When the action shifts to Canada, the literal move across the international border parallels the fate of the novel’s characters, who have moved “outside of boundaries they knew to be right, and then found themselves unable to go back”. Dell’s role as observer shifts in the second part of the book. Reeling from the break-up of his family (he will never see his parents again), he spends his time and energy seeking a way back to a clear notion of himself, and describes the strange events that befall Arthur Remlinger with the caution of someone who is fresh from a tragedy of his own:
I’m certain, after the experience of my parents being put in jail, that I was also given to look for what might not be good, where from most appearances there was nothing bad to be found … It is a function in myself of what I call reverse-thinking, which I’ve never been entirely free of since I was young.
And yet this part of the book does not sustain the power and mystery of the first half – partly because it is a variation on themes already explored in the Great Falls section, and partly because Arthur Remlinger never achieves the depth of characterisation that Dell’s parents do. Bev and Neeva are precisely observed – but they are also developed sharply via action and dialogue in ways that Arthur is not. And the conclusions Dell reaches late in life, expressed in a coda set in the novel’s present, when he meets his sister after many years and sees how differently he and she have handled the central tragedy of their lives, have more to do with his parents and their failure than with anything he experienced in Canada. Yet he does not blame them for what he went through. He understands that there are no secret explanations for the crazy turns a life can take:
I believe in what you see being most of what there is … and that life’s passed on to us empty. So, while significance weighs heavy, that’s the most it does. Hidden meaning is all but absent.
Meaning resides in what you see – and in the voice that presents and probes what is observed. What is important for Dell (and for Ford) is not event but aftermath. Like William Maxwell’s elegiac novel So Long, See You Tomorrow, Canada asks questions about identity, memory, and family that resonate long after the events of the novel have faded. And in our ear Dell’s voice also persists, lonely, complex, beautifully crafted.