A masterclass from Richard Ford
FICTION:The American writer’s astonishing new novel, about a teacher whose bank-robbing parents sent him to live with a fugitive friend, is his best yet
Canada, By Richard Ford Bloomsbury, 420pp. £18.99
FROM THE OPENING three sentences of this book and on through a long, candid, always heartfelt narrative, the Mississippi-born writer Richard Ford has further elevated his considerable art, as well as that of the contemporary American realist novel, to an astonishing new level. “First, I’ll tell about the robbery our parents committed. Then about the murders, which happened later. The robbery is the more important part, since it served to set my and my sister’s lives on the courses they eventually followed.”
Dell Parsons, the resigned if haunted narrator, looks back 50 years, to 1960, when he and his fraternal twin sister, Berner, were 15. While their father served in the air force, the little family moved from base to base, finally settling, in its habitually uneasy way, in Great Falls, Montana. Bev Parsons originally hailed from Alabama, and remained very much a Southerner, still sounding Dixie. He was a tall, good-looking loser. Although he wanted to be a fighter pilot, he ended up as a bombardier, raining “destruction on the earth”.
As early as the first page, Dell’s narration has the thoughtful, meditative, teacher’s tone that Ford sustains so brilliantly throughout. The writing is deliberate and conveys a convincing feeling of a life spent in minor shock – Dell has, after all, felt his way through the succeeding years which amounted to his life.
The influence of two novels hovers in the background. The first is Henry James’s What Maisie Knew (1897), where James explores the damaged psyche of a child who witnesses a divorce; the second is William Maxwell’s So Long, See You Tomorrow (1980), in which a narrator, again an aged man, looks back with remorse on an attitude he took decades before.
Ford is a rigorous artist. Dell’s voice also recalls the voice of Joe Brinson in Ford’s earlier novella, Wildlife (1990). Like Brinson, Dell was forced from an early age to watch adult mistakes. All Dell had wanted was to go to school. It was his father who had engaged in childish and dangerous fantasies. “We didn’t have a life like most children,” Dell remarks of himself and his sister, “which might’ve involved friends to visit, a paper route, Scouts and dances.” Now an older man and about to retire from a life of teaching, Dell recalls his parents and their marriage, a doomed union of the ill-suited.
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.”
Plans had been made to dispatch the children to Canada, to the brother of one of their mother’s few friends. Berner, however, has other ideas and disappears, hot on a promise of an unlikely romance. It’s Dell, passive and accepting, always the less forceful, who ends up being driven across the border by Mildred Remlinger. There, he is entrusted into the care of a fugitive, Mildred’s rather odd brother, Arthur, whose squalid glamour and detached distraction intrigue Dell, for a while. This becomes the second part of the novel.
Arthur’s antics prove far worse than anything gormless old Bev could devise. Mildred had briefed Dell on the subject of Canada and confirmed that it was “bigger than America, though it was mostly empty and inhospitable and covered with ice most of the time”.
Dell will never see his parents again. All he wants is an education, but instead he becomes a handyman and is ordered to bury two murdered men. Ford is exceptional on human behaviour; he studies mankind as though it is under a microscope in his private laboratory.
Dell keeps the reader mesmerised, as he tells a detailed story that even he finds difficult to believe.
By the third, closing part, many years have passed. Dell has become a Canadian citizen and has spent his life teaching English, advising his students to read books “that to me seem secretly about my young life – Heart of Darkness, The Great Gatsby, The Sheltering Sky, The Mayor of Casterbridge . . .”
A twist of fate puts him in touch with Berner, now dying. Physically decimated by her illness, Berner has not lost her wry humour, and she dominates the reunion: “I feel like, sometimes, my real life hasn’t even started. This one hasn’t been up to standard . . .”
The encounter is yet another of the author’s masterful touches. Ford explores sentiment and emotion, never sentimentality.
Reviewers will be quick to proclaim that Richard Ford has written a great American novel, another masterpiece, and he most emphatically has. Canada is his finest work to date. All the humour, intelligence and panache of his Bascombe trilogy – The Sportswriter (1985), Independence Day (1997) and The Lay of the Land (2006) – are here majestically added to the pathos of the wonderful Wildlife, and the superlative result is a powerfully human and profound novel that makes one sigh, shudder and weep. Here is greatness. No doubt about it.