Anyone looking for a treatise on our national character isn’t going to find it in Richard Ford’s eagerly awaited new novel, Canada; unless, that is, you consider a forlorn swath of rural 1960s Saskatchewan to be a microcosm of the country as a whole.
At any rate, patriotism soon runs to envy when one concedes that America will always have that precious, rare thing Canada doesn’t: Pulitzer and PEN/Faulkner prize-winner Richard Ford.
Canada is told from the point of view of Dell Parsons, a retired high school teacher looking back on the life-changing events put in motion by his physically and temperamentally mismatched parents when he was 15. Dixie-born Bev, his handsome, garrulous, father, was a bombardier in the war; his schoolteacher mother, Neeva, the diminutive, intellectually thwarted daughter of Polish Jewish immigrants.
The Parsons live the peripatetic, rootless life of a military family until they settle in Great Falls, Montana after Bev is discharged from the Air Force for his role in a meat-bootlegging scheme. After some well-intentioned failures selling cars then ranchland, Bev turns again to the black market only to have the gang of Indians he conspired with demand payback he can’t deliver. He hastily decides that robbing a bank is the only way out of his predicament. And in a sudden show of spousal unity, Neeva agrees to be his accomplice.
Bev and Neeva are easily apprehended and jailed for their amateurish crime. Dell’s twin sister, Berner, takes off just before their mother’s friend Mildred spirits Dell across the border to Fort Royal, Saskatchewan, where he will live with Mildred’s Harvard-educated brother, Arthur Remlinger, an expat who arranges goose-hunting expeditions for American sportsmen out of his hotel. But Remlinger’s genteel manners and tailored clothes mask a ruthless man with a true criminal past; someone who, unlike Dell’s parents, is not averse to taking desperate measures against would-be vengeance-seekers. We’re accustomed to thinking of Americans as the ones with the violence problem, yet the novel’s most casual brutality takes place here (meted out, mind you, by an American).
Invisibility often crops up as a theme. Bev’s biggest miscalculation in the robbery is that a mask is unnecessary because his everyday good looks effectively make him invisible (“He wanted robbing a bank to be congenial”). After their parents are taken away, Dell and Berner anxiously await youth authorities that never arrive. Later, in Saskatchewan, Dell’s sense of unimportance convinces him he’s invisible there too; like his father, he doesn’t realize that “everyone notices everything” in small prairie towns.
Ford has built his peerless reputation writing a uniquely proprietary version of the common man, one who resists the examined life with amiable taciturnity, who views regret as a waste of time. Fate, in Ford’s world, is simply luck: good or bad.
The best-known representative of this breed is, of course, Frank Bascombe, hero of the trilogy of novels that includes The Sportswriter, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Independence Day and The Lay of the Land. Having spent so much time with Bascombe it’s refreshing to be reminded how well Ford portrays young characters. They have appeared in his short stories and in 1990’s Wildlife, also set in Great Falls and also focusing on a teenage boy who witnesses the dissolution of his family in the wake of his father’s job loss.
Ford writes the kind of marooned-on-a-desert-island books that force you to question why you need to read anyone else (answer: Alice Munro). Again and again, his characters ask us to regard contradictions as plain common sense —in Dell’s eyes his father “became” a born criminal; while of their relationship he notes “in truth, we were never very close, though I loved him as if we were”— and it’s testament to Ford’s genius that, again and again, we want to.