Alone in a wasteland
by Richard Ford
There's a quiet but unmistakable sense of majesty about this novel, Pulitzer Prize winner Richard Ford's first in six years. A potent sense of something vast and mythic yet ultimately unfathomable, both in terms of the physical terrain of Saskatchewan and Montana where the novel is set, and of the human heart.
Of borders and crossings and transgressions. Of possibilities and becomings and undoings. Even its opening sentences, 'First, I'll tell you about the robbery our parents committed. Then about the murders, which happened later', are up there with the all-time classic literary openers.
It is also, in plot terms, as Ford himself has declared, his most eventful and most ambitious novel to date.
But for all that, Canada is a slow-burning novel. Its narrator, Dell Parsons, only reveals his name several chapters into his leisurely narrative and his current age, 66, towards the novel's end. Instead, he is telling us of his 15-year-old self, his twin sister Berner, and most of all, of his parents, Bev and Neeva Parsons, their unhappy marriage and their ill-conceived crime - the almost comic, but ultimately tragic crime that yielded a mere US$2,500 and ruptured forever their family lives in Great Falls, Montana.
As Dell divulges early on in the novel, this is a children's story. A story that 'is ours to weigh and apportion and judge as we see it', he says, quoting Ruskin's maxim that he was to learn years later, that 'composition is the arrangement of unequal things'.
In his meticulously detailled arrangement, his continual turning over of the unequal things of his formative years, Dell's voice slowly but inexorably grabs hold of his readers' consciousness.
As ever, Ford's superb, sinewy and sonorous sentences are the star of this mesmerising narrative which unfolds in three rhythmic, ambulatory and unequal chapters. Their power is of the order to stop readers in their tracks at times, to set them turning over their intent, much as Dell continually rakes over the fragmentary details of his parents' life in order to make sense of his own.
In the first half of the novel, his focus scarcely shifts from his parents. There's his handsome, outgoing father Bev, an air force bombardier from Alabama who returned from the second world war not understanding the world he'd returned home to, but embracing America nonetheless. Then there's his 'tiny, intense, bespectacled' college-educated mother, Neeva, the daughter of Polish Jewish immigrants from Tacoma, who longed for a different life than the one she was living. Dell recalls that she 'refused to let her children assimilate into the 'market-town mentality' which she believed stifled life in Great Falls'.
No detail escapes Dell's precise telling, as he languidly reconstructs the intimate and humdrum details of his family's life and his lonely adolescence in 1960s small-town America. His father, he comes to suspect, had always longed to rob a bank. But the motives of his conscientious teacher mother, who commits suicide in the North Dakota State Penitentiary leaving a brief account titled 'A Chronicle of Crime Committed by a Weak Person', remains unfathomable. 'My part was to find a way to be normal,' Dell writes. 'Children know normal better than anyone.'
Yet for all the focus on his parents - or perhaps because of it - the power and pathos of the narrative resides in the fact that it is, exactly as he tells us, a children's story. Children who, after their parents' arrest, are left to their lonely ends in an empty house, waiting for their mother's colleague, Mildred Remlinger, to come for them. Or worse, for the authorities to take them to a foster home. A clock can almost be heard ticking when, in one of the most poignant parts of the novel, this boy-child who loves school and beekeeping listens to the silences of their tiny rented house, trying to take stock of its contents and his old life in it.
Within days of the arrest, Berner runs away, and only Dell travels with Mildred across the border to Canada, taking with him all his treasured possessions, which fit, heart-rendingly, into one pillowcase. On the way he learns he is to stay with Mildred's brother Arthur Remlinger, who runs a seedy hotel in the Saskatchewan town of Fort Royal, and is hiding a dubious past.
A kind of austere beauty, together with a kind of aching emptiness pervades the second part - almost half of the novel. Ford plays upon the vast, empty Saskatchewan prairies, scarred with the detritus of failed towns and abandoned lives, in order to mirror Dell's sense of loss, emptiness and abandonment.
There's also a strange absence too, about the blond, elegantly dressed, Harvard- educated Arthur, who greets the goose hunters and truck drivers that frequent the bar of his run-down hotel, 'dressed like an English duke or baron who'd been out walking his estate'. Arthur initially ignores his young charge, leaving him to toil in the hotel under the watchful eye of the hostile transvestite Charley Quarters, who warns Dell that Arthur plans to use him in some ill way.
But Dell is too young and guileless to anticipate the violence that comes his way. Forced to bury two bodies along with what is left of his childhood, we meet him in the final, short, third of the book as a 66-year-old English teacher on the verge of retirement in Canada, ruminating on the meaning of life. Trying, he writes, 'as Ruskin implied, to keep proportion, to connect the unequal things into a whole that preserves the good'.
This languid yet beguiling coming-of-age tale is an ambitious meditation on life's unequal parts, its possibilities and its shadowy borderlines. On the strange, unfathomable, utterly human nature of who one is, and who one could become. On the myriad, subtle calibrations that mark the borders between normalcy and aberrance. Or as Dell puts it, 'how close evil is to the normal goings on that have nothing to do with evil'.