FOUR hundred pages into this impressive, if flawed, novel, Richard Ford’s protagonist is a lecturer at a Canadian college. “Do you ever have this odd feeling that you have somehow escaped punishment,” he asks them.
The students look perplexed. They don’t know what he’s talking about. But we do, and we know that it goes a lot deeper than lecture notes on Hardy’s The Mayor Of Casterbridge.
It goes right back to the novel’s first sentence, when Dell Parsons is looking back on his 15-year-old self and trying to make sense of his subsequent life. “First, I’ll tell you about the robbery our parents committed. Then about the murders, which happened later.” He and his twin sister Berner grow up in Great Falls, Montana, as the children of an unlikely marriage between handsome, feckless, optimistic former airman father Bev and his unsociable, intense wife Neeva. After the spectacular failure of a series of Bev’s get-rich-quick schemes, they decide on an even more unlikely solution: to rob a bank.
What makes any of this believable is not just Ford’s exquisite multi-layered characterisation but the way he filters the story through the uncomprehending consciousness of Dell and Berner. Despite repeatedly undercutting narrative tension by revealing what happened next (as in the first two sentences) Ford nevertheless builds up a powerful sense of foreboding.
At this stage, in the first of the book’s two halves, Ford inverts all expectations. The twins commit incest, but it doesn’t mean a thing; the unhappiness in their parents’ marriage dissolves just when you would expect it wouldn’t, as they wait for the police to arrive; when they are arrested and he visits his father in prison, instead of anguish, Dell finds “a great feeling of calm”.
In such scenes, we are reminded of the emotional exactitude of Ford’s fiction, that almost forensic delineation of the precise moments that lives turn. Unlike his superlative Frank Bascombe trilogy, this doesn’t also accompany a similarly precise portrait of the compromises within the American Dream: instead, the question he returns to constantly is the extent to which we can escape our past or learn to accept the randomness of fate.
The 66-year-old Dell, teaching The Mayor Of Casterbridge to his students, would know the answer to that one. The 15-year-old Dell, spirited out of the hands of Montana social services by Neeva’s best friend to work in an isolated Canadian hotel, has it all to learn.
The problem is that once we are across the Canadian border, the novel’s pace flags, Dell’s musings about life start to sound unconvincing and the credibility of the characters falls away: Dell’s mentor, Harvard-educated anarcho-syndicalist backwoods Saskatchewan hotel owner Arthur Remlinger, is every bit as unlikely as he sounds, and he is only one among many. Yet Remlinger’s past is even more fraught than Hardy’s Michael Henchard, and reaches out across the border to make Dell complicit in a horrendous crime.
Has he escaped punishment 50 years on? Perhaps. Has he accepted life’s battering? Definitely. But even though Ford just about pulls off an affecting coda, what lingers longest in the reader’s mind are moments when the future hung dark above young Dell’s life, like the blackest of thunderclouds just about to burst.
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