North of the Border

Richard Ford cites John Ruskins idea on composition as the arrangement of unequal things at the beginning and the end of his impressive novel Canada, and this notion is at work both thematically and functionally throughout. The opening pair of sentencesFirst, Ill tell about the robbery our parents committed. Then about the murders, which happened latercould serve as a creative-writing lesson in how to hook a reader. But of the many hundreds of pages that follow, only a fraction depict the specifics of these events themselves. The vast balance is given over to the recollections and ruminations of the sixty-plus narrator, a teacher who half a century on is still trying to set them in proportion against the rest of his life.That narrator, Dell Parsons, asserts that its precisely those thunderclap moments that change the course of things, no more than when they occur in the middle of adolescenceand when the perpetrators of the crimes are your parents and the parent-like figures in whose care youre subsequently placed. If the adults in charge can so casually and remorselessly abdicate their role as provider and protector, theres no telling what might happen to the sons and daughters they leave behind.With Canada, Ford returns to territory he covered in the stories in Rock Springs and the novel Wildlife, not just geographically but also tonally and substantively (he has said in interviews that the idea for Canada was in my brain as far back as 1989, when he committed some of its basic elements to the page). Dell is the earnest son of Bev (a mans name, the father forcefully insists) and Neeva (daughter of Polish-Jewish immigrants), fifteen years old when the novel opens in Great Falls, Montana, in 1960. Hes determined to define himself through such grounded pursuits as education and chessthe better to offset the restless and rootless Bev, a war veteran with declining ability and interest in finding gainful employment. Like the adult males in some of Fords earlier fiction, Bev seems destined to fail his son, and when he undertakes a poorly thought plan to rob a bank (a plan in which Neeva reluctantly takes part), the outcome is inevitable. Whats less certain is how this will affect Dell and his twin sister Berner, virtual orphans once their parents are caught and sent to jail.Its the robberys aftermath that takes up the second half of the novel. Dispatched to Saskatchewan to be cared for by a mysterious American acquaintance named Arthur Remlinger, Dell is put to work helping arrange goose-hunts for visiting sportsmen and quartered in a run-down shack on the bare expanse of the prairie. He continues in his endeavor to somehow define himself, through reading whatever is at hand while keeping a wary distance from the crazy Charley Quarters, a Remlinger employee who has no equal for sheer oddness in any of Fords work that I can recall (Quarters would move comfortably through a Denis Johnson story or David Lynch movie). What action there is here consists mainly of the run-up to the promised murderswhich when they finally occur we glimpse through Dells own semi-obscured view, in a scene that is over and done with in a couple of paragraphs.That may make it sound as if the bulk of Canada exhibits meager momentum, but then momentum (of the page-turning sort) is not really Fords aim, in spite of those opening sentences. What pushes the story are Dells unending attemptswhich proves to be his life-workto make sense of things he had no control over yet that nonetheless sent him on his way. His how did I get here? is not a confused question but a spur to serious self-inquiry. As Ford has noted, hes a writer more interested in the consequences of human acts, not the acts themselves.This tends to put us deep inside the heads of his protagonists, and Dell is no less ruminative than Frank Bascombe of The Sportswriter and its sequels, or of the adolescent narrator of Wildlife. But his voice is more compelling: We experience a coalescing of beliefs and philosophy right along with Dell, in a language and sensibility that matches the novels geographic and time setting. On his exile to Saskatchewan: I was now smaller in the worlds view and insignificant, and possibly invisible. All of which made me feel closer to death than life. Which is not how fifteen-year-old boys should feel. On trying to escape his straitened circumstances: Life had begun to demand lies to be workable. On the essential unpredictability of things: I already knew of course, from my own lifewhether I could have said it or notthat the implausible often became as plausible as the sun coming up. Or on the foolishness of putting faith in ordinary expectations: The opposite could turn out to be the truth the opposite of everything obvious deserved consideration. The last reveals his acceptance of an idea planted earlier with him by one of the few reliable adults in the novel: There are the people who understand you dont ever know, she tells him, then theyre the ones who think you always do. Im in the former group. Its safer.What becomes of Dells sister Berner takes place mainly off-stage, although we do encounter her once more in the end, gravely changed and all but unrecognizable to Dell. The moment should have greater impact than it does, but Berner from the start is thinly drawnan unfortunate fate shared by all of the female characters in Canada, who are far less able to vie with men like Bev and Charley and Arthur for the readers attention.But, as Dell contends, events inevitably shove people off into differing orbits, across borders, toward the margins, away from one another and everything theyve known, sometimes permanently. Retracing your steps, finding your way back, fitting the past into your presentthese are labors of composition. Whats superfluous or insignificant or too heavy to bear must be cast off. Its something the aging Dell continues to struggle with, and what an impatient reader might too: [C]onnecting the unequal things into a whole that preserves the good, even if admittedly the good is often not simple to find.The patient, on the other hand, will be rewarded: Theres plenty thats good, and some thats great, in Canada.

Dominic Preziosi is Commonweal’s editor. Follow him on Twitter.

Also by this author
New issue now live

Please email comments to [email protected] and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Must Reads