In common with the country of its title, Richard Ford’s sixth novel, Canada, covers vast tracts of contrasting terrain – from seismic clefts of rumpled mountain betokening shock in a previous time, to settled productive stretches of flatland, which some might call drab but which signal assurance, a peaceful graph across the horizon.
by Richard Ford
Bloomsbury, 420pp, £18.99
The above may not be the reason Ford plumped for his title, but twice in the novel he mentions the English critic John Ruskin who wrote “composition is the arrangement of unequal things” – which both the geographical entity and the novel that is Canada seem to manage. In a story that rides the rapids, dredges darkly into banality, and concocts an off-kilter carnival of characters who cavort across its pages, Ford never abdicates control of the minutae of his design or the composition of the whole.
From the pen of Dell Parsons, his ageing narrator, he ends his last paragraph with the reminder: “You have a better chance in life –of surviving it – if you manage … to connect the unequal things into a whole that preserves the good.” It is Dell’s credo, attached to a life in which the seismic shock arrived early, and where the flatlands (of later manhood) were a trick of assimilation he had to acquire against the grain of the conditioning of his youth, taught by his mother how not to fit in.
The opening sentences of the novel are like a knife slicing open a letter: “First, I’ll tell you about the robbery our parents committed,” rites Dell, “Then about the murders, which happened later.” It was 1960 when all this started. Dell was 15 and lived with his parents and twin sister Berner in Great Falls, Montana. His father, Bev, hale fellow well met, had been a captain in the air force, fought in the Philippines, then left service to follow a sales career in automobiles and ranch land, talking big, but earning small.
The mother, Neeva, tiny, bespectacled and Jewish, writing introverted poems on the quiet, made few friends. She and Bev were the classic shotgun wedding miss-match, but respectable. “Our parents were the least likely people in the world to rob a bank,” writes Dell, “of course, that kind of thinking became null and void the moment they did rob a bank.”
In part, the novel brings into close scrutiny that crack between our regular selves and the outcasts we all might become. In the mind of Dell the quake of the robbery exploded that crack, creating from it a chasm, and the pathological drive to be on the safe side: “To me, it’s edging closer to the point of no return that’s fascinating… You notice it, or you don’t notice it… For reasons of our parent’s disastrous choices, I believe I’m both distrustful of normal life and in equal parts desperate for it.”
The key to understanding what happens next lies in that sentence as Dell’s life bumps on the consequent ripples of his parent’s smash and grab, and propels him to Canada, a haven that’s not as ‘normal’ as you might think.
The chapters approaching that point – like cards quickly dealt from a pack, face up, face down – are the heart of the drama: Bev’s involvement in a beef smuggling scam, the hold-up plan, the robbery and its aftermath, then the visit by detectives to handcuff the parents and take them away in front of the twins.
Ford conveys this with shifts of mood and angles of outlook, the pervasive, subtle atmospheric pressure of the drama lending Dell’s voice a startled wonder layered with acceptance, so that even his brief description of an impromptu moment of incest seems almost blasé.
Saskatchewan, where Dell moves in the wake of his sister’s disappearance, marks a key change, the story flattening, told without lightness (in either sense), marking the damage to Dell’s expectations. There he works for Arthur Remlinger, an enigma, who runs a hotel and who places Dell under the talons of Charley Quarters, half French, half Indian, a lipstick-wearing killer. Violence palpitates there like ions in the atmosphere, but Dell somehow holds himself safe and his hopes at bay, in a bid for normality he will cultivate all his life.
The book touches greatness at times. Its concluding, epic chapter, when Del and his sister re-embrace at the end of her life, is a feat of empathy and balance richly remarkable in its deftness. It marks the conclusion to the story, but also the start of another chapter, with Dell in old age the sole possessor of the past, maintaining his search for that which is good.
If not the Great American Novel, Canada resonates with, and underscores, Ford’s status as a great America writer whose books define us and make of the past a continuing present with which to connect.
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