The Guardian on Canada by Richard Ford
By John Banville
"Children know normal better than anyone," says Dell Parsons, the narrator of Richard Ford's luminous and utterly forlorn new novel, and certainly Dell when he was a child knew far better than most what a normal life, especially a normal American life, is likely to turn out to be. The opening sentences of the book, which are bound to go straight into the collective literary memory, tell us what he, and we, are in for: "First, I'll tell about the robbery our parents committed. Then about the murders, which happened later."
The year is 1960, and the Parsons family – father Bev, mother Neeva, and 15-year-old Dell and his twin sister, Berner – are settled, just about, in the city of Great Falls, Montana, having moved there four years previously. Bev, a good ol' boy from Alabama, had been an air force bombardier who saw action in the Philippines and Osaka, "where they rained down destruction on the earth". Having left the service, he works as a car salesman and then gets involved in a beef-smuggling racket with a local band of Indians. Neeva, short for Geneva, "a tiny, intense, bespectacled woman with unruly brown hair, vestiges of which ran down her jawline", is Jewish, and has literary pretensions, or longings, at least. She and Bev are an archetypical American married couple of the time, who just happen to become bank robbers.
"While from a distance," Dell writes, "it may seem that our parents were merely not made for one another, it was more true that when our mother married our father, it betokened a loss, and her life changed forever – and not in a good way – as she surely must've believed." At a certain level, and although Dell specifically denies it, Canada is a study of that sense of loss, which was, and is, pervasive in American life – consider today's Tea Party movement and its members' plaintive wish to "take back" the country from the mysterious forces that somehow stole it from them. The Parsons, man and wife, are not particularly unhappy together, just discontent and uncertain, so that Dell can honestly say that to him and his sister "life in our house seemed normal". Normal: there is that word again.
Dell writes of his father that when he came back from the war in 1945 "he may have been in the grip of some great, unspecified gravity, as many GIs were. He spent the rest of his life wrestling with that gravity, puzzling to stay positive and afloat, making bad decisions that truly seemed good for a moment, but ultimately misunderstanding the world he'd returned home to and having that misunderstanding become his life."
The portraits of Bev and Neeva are masterly. These are perfectly ordinary people who get dragged down by the force of that "great, unspecified gravity" and, still gamely in pursuit of "normality", turn to desperate measures to solve the difficulties of their lives. Inevitably, the beef-smuggling scheme goes wrong, the Indians threaten serious violence, until Bev and Neeva can see no way out of their predicament other than to rob a bank and use the proceeds to pay off their ill-gotten debts. That plan also goes awry, of course, and one day the police arrive and the couple are put in handcuffs and taken away, with no immediate arrangements in place for the care of the twins.
The chapters devoted to the arrest of the parents and how the children cope with the calamity form the beating heart of the book. What makes these pages so powerful is the unrelenting control that Ford exerts over the style and pace of the writing. "You'd think," Dell observes, "that to watch your parents be handcuffed, called bank robbers to their faces and driven away to jail, and for you to be left behind might make you lose your mind. It might make you run the rooms of your house in a frenzy and wail and abandon yourself to despair, and for nothing to be right again. And for someone that might be true. But you don't know how you'll act in such a situation until it happens. I can tell you most of that is not what took place, though of course life was changed forever."
It took this reader a little time to become accustomed to the measured, downbeat tone of Canada. In the superb trilogy of novels centred on the character of Frank Bascombe – The Sportswriter, Independence Day and The Lay of the Land – Ford developed an idiosyncratically playful, slyly dandified voice that owed as much to the great European stylists as it did to Emerson and Twain. In this new book, he writes with deliberate flatness, eschewing stylistic flourishes – except when describing North American landscapes – so that Dell speaks in the cadences of a permanently damaged spirit. Listening to him, sentence by careful sentence, is like watching a car-crash survivor making his way along a hospital corridor, step by careful step. His voice, at once muffled and clear, is remarkably resonant, and devastating in its directness, as when he almost casually describes how he and Berner engage in a brief bout of consolatory incest, or when he remarks of his father, "In truth, we were never close, although I loved him as if we were."
In the middle, the book divides abruptly, and at first it seems that there are two novels here that have been spliced into one. This is a feat of great technical daring, which Ford just about pulls off. As part two opens – "Life-changing events often don't seem what they are" – Bev and Neeva are in jail awaiting trial, Berner has walked off into the wide American afternoon, and Dell is being driven by a friend of his mother's, Mildred Remlinger, across the border to Canada, where he will be left in the care, if that is the word, of Mildred's brother Arthur, who owns a run-down hotel in Fort Royal, a dingy town outside Saskatchewan. Before he encounters Arthur, however, Dell finds himself left to the untender mercies of Arthur's henchman Charley Quarters.
This pair are extraordinary creations, at once enigmatic and vividly alive on the page. Arthur, handsome, finely dressed, urbane, is a man with a past who knows that "bad things were coming to him". "Absence," Dell tells us, "was his companion in life," and he needs Dell to be for him a "special son" who will "do what sons do for their fathers: bear witness that they're substantial, that they're not hollow, not ringing absences". In contrast to his boss, Charley Quarters is a feral creature, a hunter who shoots anything that moves, dyes his hair and on occasion wears lipstick.
Here we seem to be in the territory of Robert Stone or Cormac McCarthy, or on its borders, at least. However, the inevitable violence when it comes is presented in the same low-key manner that is maintained throughout the book. "I remember very well how fast the shooting and the killing took place. There were no dramatics to it, as in movies. It happened at once – almost as if it didn't happen. Only then someone's dead." These violent acts are of far less moment to Dell than the struggle he must engage in to hold himself apart from the mayhem and not allow his spirit to be damaged by it. Here, once again, we hear the enduring refrain: "Through all these memorable events, normal life was what I was seeking to preserve for myself." But what, by now, would constitute normal life?
Canada is a superlatively good book, richly imagined and beautifully fashioned. Although it is too early to do so, one is tempted to acclaim it a masterpiece. It catches movingly the grinding loneliness at the heart of American life – of life anywhere. As the narrative makes its measured progress, the sadness steadily accumulates, a weightless silt that gets under the eyelids. The final encounter at the close of the book between Dell and Berner is one of the most tenderly drawn scenes in modern literature, and could only have been written by a writer of Richard Ford's empathy, insight and technical mastery.