The Philadelphia Inquirer on Canada by Richard Ford
There are two Richard Fords. Let’s call them Richard Ford East and Richard Ford West.
Richard Ford East starts a novel like this: “In Haddam, summer floats over tree-softened streets like a sweet lotion balm from a careless, languorous god, and the world falls in tune with its own mysterious anthems.” Richard Ford West, on the other hand, starts a novel in this fashion: “First, I’ll tell about the robbery our parents committed. Then about the murders, which happened later.”
Richard Ford East is the author of the thoroughly Updikean (for better or worse) Frank Bascombe trilogy — 1986’s The Sportswriter, 1995’s Independence Day (the Pulitzer-Prize-winning source of the first quotation), and 2006’s The Lay of the Land — as well as two collections of short stories, 1997’s Women with Men and 2002’s A Multitude of Sins. This Richard Ford, for the most part, primarily explores the inner lives of decent, urbane, middle-aged men as they fret about and struggle with the women they marry, father children with, cheat upon, are cheated upon by, and divorce.
Richard Ford West writes mostly of people living in Montana; he’s the author of the widely acclaimed short-story collection Rock Springs (1987) — the book that first pinned him firmly to the literary map — the novel Wildlife (1990), and now, Canada, the first book by either Richard Ford in six years. Like Wildlife and the best of the stories from Rock Springs, Canada is narrated by a mature man looking back upon the events of his formative teenage years during the early 1960s, and he does this in language as unadorned and uncompromising as the landscape it describes, as the first two shockingly direct sentences of the novel quoted above demonstrate.
The speaker of these lines is Dell Parsons, who, at the time of these events in 1960, was 15. And, for the next 400-plus pages, he not only tells us all that he knows and doesn’t know about these momentous events in his life, he tries to piece together how it is that they came to seem inevitable to those who committed them, as well as trace their effect on his parents, his twin sister, Berner, and himself.
In the novel’s first half, Dell reflects back upon the years preceding his parents’ crime, desperately attempting to determine how such normal-seeming but unhappily mismatched people could find themselves “ventur[ing] outside boundaries they knew to be right, and then … unable to go back.” Was it due to nothing more than being “tricked by circumstance and bad instincts, along with bad luck,” or was it something deeper, something inescapable and inevitable, something fated?
Regardless, he and his sister soon find themselves effectively parentless. Berner immediately abandons him to seek her own destiny, but he chooses to remain, passively allowing a friend of his mother to transport him across the border to Canada to be taken care by the friend’s brother, Arthur Remlinger, a magnetic and mysterious American who runs a hotel in a tiny town. Alone in the barren emptiness of Saskatchewan, disconnected from all that he once knew, Dell wonders what will become of his life. In the meantime, he finds himself helplessly drawn into a plan that Remlinger has conceived to escape from a past that is creeping back upon him, a plan that unfurls within a taut section of the novel that masterfully evokes nothing less than Ernest Hemingway’s classic story “The Killers.”
Summaries like this one never do justice to good novels, of course, but Canada is particularly resistant to such an attempt because its plot is not what compels us to keep reading; what does compel us is Dell’s keen, calm, contemplative voice as he attempts to make sense of his tumultuous 15th year. Thinking back upon his time spent in Saskatchewan, for example, the older Dell notes this about his younger self: “I was now smaller in the world’s view and insignificant, and possibly invisible. All of which made me feel closer to death than close to life. Which is not how fifteen-year-old boys should feel. I felt that by being where I was, I was no longer fortunate and was likely not going to be, although I’d always trusted that I was.” Such cool-headed observations are littered throughout the novel, and they rarely fail to chill the blood.
Whether Dell ends up fortunate or not is attended to in Canada’s brief but brilliant third section, which transports us to the time and place from which Dell has been telling us of his younger days. With this section, Ford manages to resolve the novel in a fashion that is somehow both heartbreaking and heartening, and with Canada as a whole he reasserts his already very secure position as one of America’s finest and truest writers.