Most losers are self-made men

Theo Tait

  • Canada by Richard Ford
    Bloomsbury, 420 pp, £18.99, June 2012, ISBN 978 0 7475 9860 2

The first two sentences of Richard Ford’s seventh novel have the ring of permanence about them: ‘First, I’ll tell about the robbery our parents committed. Then about the murders, which happened later.’ They encapsulate not just Canada’s events, but its mood and style, the balance of sensational goings-on with a ruminative, rueful delivery. They surprise, like much of Ford’s prose, with the powerful effects that can be wrung from plain language. And their promise is borne out by the mesmerising story that follows.

Dell Parsons, Ford’s narrator, looks back from late middle age on a period of a few months in the summer and autumn of 1960. Four years earlier his family had come to Great Falls, Montana, ‘the way many military families came to where they came to following the war’. His parents are unsettled and mismatched. Bev Parsons, his father, is a country boy from Alabama, ‘big, plank-shouldered, talkative, funny’, with ingratiating Southern manners and a talent for screwing things up. Neeva Kamper, his mother, is ‘a tiny, intense, bespectacled’ Jewish woman, a disappointed bohemian settled in a small Great Plains city whose ‘market-town mentality’ she despises. She was an ‘unusual-looking person’, Dell says, who ‘only seemed more unusual standing reluctantly beside our tall, handsome, outgoing father’.

Neeva had ‘unluckily’ got pregnant after ‘one hasty encounter’ with Bev, at a party in 1945 honouring returned airmen. The result is an unstable marriage and lonely, isolated twin children: Dell, small for his age, desperate for normality, which he embraces in the form of school and chess; and his sister, Berner, bigger, stronger and wilder than him, ‘a tall gangly girl with a dissatisfied look on her face’, in their mother’s words. The disorienting effect of the war is one of many larger subtexts economically handled by Ford, who addresses the subject mostly in one deft passage: Dell says that when his father returned from his wartime service as an air-force bombardier, raining destruction out of the skies on Japan,

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.

One of Ford’s attractions, in a literary culture contorted by self-consciousness and irony, is his directness: ‘My name is Frank Bascombe. I am a sportswriter,’ begins the first of his famous trilogy of novels: The Sportswriter (1986), Independence Day (1995) and The Lay of the Land (2006). Bascombe is a narrator who promises ‘full disclosure’, describing an average life, the ‘applauseless life of us all’. Yet just as the average life turns out to be anything but average, his attempts to tell all are often a complicated form of evasion: what he calls his ‘dreaminess’ in the first novel sounds like a euphemism for something darker, and his aphoristic, everyday eloquence – ‘Anyone could be anyone else in most ways’ – often on closer inspection dissolves into mysteriousness.

Canada is a return to the bleaker style and settings of Ford’s early books: his 1990 novel Wildlife was also set in Great Falls in 1960, and also featured a teenage narrator observing traumatic events, as do several of the stories in Rock Springs (1987). (Ford grew up in Mississippi, but felt his home state was haunted by too many powerful literary presences; he has called Great Falls a ‘triggering town’, a place ‘where you could set just about any story’.) Many of the motifs and incidents in the short stories – particularly the idea of an adolescent damaged by careless adults – are echoed in the new book, and the opening of his 1987 story ‘Optimists’ could almost be an earlier draft of Canada’s: ‘All of this that I am about to tell happened when I was only 15 years old, in 1959, the year my parents were divorced, the year when my father killed a man and went to prison for it, the year I left home and school, told a lie about my age to fool the army, and then did not come back.’

The term ‘dirty realism’ is still helpful in understanding a family resemblance between various American writers who emerged in the 1970s and early 1980s, particularly Ford, Tobias Wolff and Raymond Carver. (Ford has said that Carver didn’t mind when ‘I adopted as my own’ the direct style of his short story openings.) They tended to write about ordinary, hard lives in a spare, detached way, with much attention to surface description. It was a form of minimalism, and – as ever with minimalism – what was left out was as important as what was stated. Though Dell’s voice is not shy of complexity or the occasional gorgeous, heightened passage, it has retained some of the numb understatement of Ford’s early work, a surface calm belying a disturbance of the spirit: ‘However, blaming your parents for your life’s difficulties finally leads nowhere.’ Though much plainer than Bascombe’s voice, it’s a style in which down to earth wisdom bleeds into the near mystical: ‘Things you did. Things you never did. Things you dreamed. After a long time they run together.’

The story of Canada falls into two sections, followed by a coda. In the first, Bev (or ‘our father’, as he is mostly called) leaves the air force under a cloud, and becomes involved in a beef-rustling racket run by local Cree Indians. He falls out with his partners, who demand a large amount of money with threats. Bev decides the only solution to his troubles is to rob a bank; for her own complicated reasons, his wife decides to help him. It wouldn’t do to describe it in too much detail: Ford’s narrative is artfully proleptic and repetitive, with climactic events telegraphed far in advance, then circled repeatedly; such narrative excitement as there is derives from the way crucial new details are dropped in each time. But it’s brilliantly done: Ford sells a potentially improbable story, telling episode by telling episode. It’s sympathetically devastating about the life-destroying weaknesses of the Parsons parents: since Bev ‘didn’t consider himself the type of person to commit an armed robbery, actually committing one didn’t immediately change his opinion of himself’.

The second half is very different. In the confusion that follows the robbery, Dell is taken over the border to Canada, where he finds himself living in a shack in a ruined town amid the endless wheat-growing prairie of Saskatchewan. He works in a seedy hotel run by Arthur Remlinger, a handsome, educated American with extreme libertarian views and trouble in his past; we’re told that he had ‘become disenchanted’ with the United States. Dell is supervised by Charley Quarters, a sinister, misshapen Métis (part indigenous) man with a penchant for make-up and what he calls ‘rough taxidermy’: shooting coyotes and other animals, and preserving them in disturbing ways. The plot slowly turns to its inevitable business: the murders mentioned in the novel’s second sentence.

The experience of reading Canada is a bit like Dell’s trip over the border: it’s at once bleak and stunning, like the ‘dry, unchanging cropland – a sea of golden wheat melting up into the hot unblemished blue sky crossed only by electrical wires’. If your most recent experience of Ford is of the Bascombe novels – with their capacious voice, teeming with detail and humorous observation – Dell’s narration may seem flat and soporific in comparison. But if you allow yourself to adapt to its slow rhythms, then its grace becomes apparent. It’s clear-eyed and unsentimental but terribly sad. It evokes a specifically American loneliness, the transience and rootlessness and empty spaces that Ford – the travelling salesman’s son who spent part of his teens in an Arkansas hotel – has made his own. This is Dell’s final judgment on his parents: ‘people without real possessions, without permanence, who never owned a house, who carried little with them … They were people running from the past, who didn’t look back at much if they could help it, and whose whole life always lay somewhere in the offing.’

On almost every page there’s something arresting, alive or wise – about the hallucinatory prairie landscape, the shocking adaptability of children, or parent-child relationships. Arthur briefly seems to adopt Dell, asking him to ‘do what sons do for their fathers: bear witness that they’re substantial, that they’re not hollow, not ringing absences’. There are all sorts of thematic concerns unobtrusively inserted into the book. There’s a rich political subtext, to do with patriotism and right-wing extremism. Ford has talked about the influence of his Presbyterian background, and Canada is partly a dazed meditation on predestination, an ambiguous ‘theory of destiny and character’. You see it in the artful circularity of the prose: people come to where they come to; if you rob a bank, you become a bank robber; misunderstand the world and misunderstanding becomes your life. Or, as Charley Quarters puts it: ‘Most losers are self-made men.’

As so often in Ford, well-specified details meld seamlessly into the carefully crafted sentences. The Native Americans, a troubling presence at the edge of the novel’s vision, are always vivid, though only glimpsed. The threatening Cree man who turns up at the Parsons home is wearing a bright red cardigan over a dirty grey sweatshirt, ‘a strange outfit for August’: ‘When he’d stepped up onto the sidewalk, it was clear things hurt in his legs. He had to navigate himself using his shoulders, and his knees pointed in … His complexion looked orangish and roughed up with acne whelps, and he had a Band-Aid on his neck.’

Ford has said that he likes to contemplate the names of his characters ‘very hard’: Bev Parsons perfectly captures the hapless jauntiness of Dell’s father. There’s an undercurrent of suppressed humour in the book, which briefly surfaces in this respect: ‘Bev. Captain Bev Parsons. He never conceded that Beverly was a woman’s name in most people’s minds. It grew from Anglo-Saxon roots, he said. “It’s a common name in England. Vivian, Gwen and Shirley are men’s names there. No one confuses them with women.”’ Ford’s invented Canadian place names – the ruined town is called Partreau, and the hotel is in the town of Fort Royal – work similarly against the strange incidental poetry of the area’s real town and city names: Medicine Hat, Moose Jaw, Swift Current.

I’ll admit to having had, amid the exhilaration, occasional doubts about the enterprise. Purely in terms of content, this is a crime story, with the requisite bank job, murders, desperadoes, border crossing, open prairies, railroads. There’s also the question of the join between the two stories, which at one level have little to do with each other. But it’s a novel that starts well, and goes on getting better. The bank jobs, desperadoes and prairies are done as convincingly as I can remember them ever being done; in Ford’s hands, they seem newly resonant. The two-part scheme only fully makes sense at the very end, with a short, devastating coda set in the present day. Early on, Dell remarks: ‘Years later in college, I read that the great critic Ruskin wrote that composition is the arrangement of unequal things. Which means it’s for the composer to determine what’s equal to what, and what matters more and what can be set to the side of life’s hurtling passage onward.’ By the end, the wisdom of Ford’s arrangement is not in doubt.