A masterclass from Richard Ford
The characterisation in this novel is magnificent. Ford has never employed his languorous, slow-moving, rhythmic prose to better effect. Bev was barely educated but was an optimist, “a nonstop talker . . . open-minded for a southerner, had graceful, obliging manners that should’ve taken him far in the Air Force, but didn’t”. That “but didn’t” is telling.
Mother, Neeva Kamper, an only child of Polish immigrants, was very different: tiny, intense, quasi-bohemian, a nonpractising Jew, a college graduate with intellectual and literary pretensions. A sense of thwarted superiority informed her attitude to her husband. The distance between them seemed to retract briefly after the robbery. As for the inept crime, Ford makes inspired use of it as a device – it’s less Jesse James and more Bonnie and Clyde. As Dell remarks: “Some people want to be bank presidents. Other people want to rob banks.” Bev Parsons had always wanted to rob one.
Ford’s themes are loss, failure, regret and, most of all, a need for resolution. Dell ponders everything, mulling over memories. The narrative is repetitive, yet this is vital. He circles the facts, constantly probing, assessing and debating with himself. It creates an authentic sense of how memory works.
Dell recalls his pleasure when his mother offered him a rare chance to come shopping with her, because it was usually his sister who went with her. When he thinks of his father, he concedes: “In truth, we were never very close, although I loved him as if we were.” The bank raid is almost comic; Ford never loses sight of unintentional humour.
Bev had clearly wanted the boy as his accomplice, but the uptight Neeva insisted on going. The children were left alone together, while their parents drove off to rob “the North Dakota Agricultural National Bank in Creekmore (population 600)”.
On their return, the parents appear edgy. It doesn’t take long for the police to arrive. Time and again Ford allows Dell to ponder the craziness of it all: “You’d think 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.”