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Posted on Jun 14, 2012
By Ron Charles
Toni Morrison, John Irving and now Richard Ford.
The month of May turned into a catwalk of America’s greatest senior novelists. Ford’s new book is the best of the lot, though, a magnificent work of Montana gothic that confirms his position as one of the finest stylists and most humane storytellers in America.
He’s well known, of course, for his Frank Bascombe trilogy, whose second volume, “Independence Day,” won the PEN/Faulkner Award and the Pulitzer Prize. As rich and durable as John Updike’s Rabbit quartet and Philip Roth’s Zuckerman series, the Bascombe novels are an insightful chronicle of middle-class life, infused with the economic and cultural anxieties of the late 20th century.
Now, Ford has left the suburbs of New Jersey two thousand miles away and delivered his most elegiac and profound book. “Canada” may strike recent fans as a departure, but it’s actually a return to the plains of his first celebrated story collection, “Rock Springs” (1987). Here in Great Falls, Mont., the author lays out a tale of one unexceptional family’s disintegration.
“First, I’ll tell about the robbery our parents committed. Then about the murders, which happened later.”
That unguarded opening comes from Dell Parsons, an English teacher on the eve of retirement. He’s looking back, without bitterness, at the calamitous events of his adolescence 50 years ago. He speaks in sentences that waver between unvarnished confession and life-tested judgments. There’s something unnerving about Dell’s calm, modulated voice, but the more he tells us, the more his temperament seems like a healthy response to traumas that would bury a weaker man.
The story begins when Dell and his twin sister, Berner, are 15, living an isolated life in a town that offers them no extended family or friends. Their mother is an intense, skeptical woman whose Polish-Jewish background accentuates her alienation. Their handsome Southern father never finds stable work after leaving the Air Force in 1960, but he expects the children to share his boundless optimism. He tries selling cars, then land, while dealing in stolen beef on the side—“a small, penny-ante scheme” that allows him to pretend he’s not really a crook.
Ford can be sympathetic and yet clear-eyed about the limits of these poor, mismatched people. His delineation of their characters is insistent without seeming relentless, moving further and further into the conflicted desires and misimpressions that motivate them. In a rented house riven by silent tensions and disappointments, Berner grows morose and sexually reckless; Dell, always the earnest student, throws himself into the study of chess and bees—miniature worlds that provide the fixed, predictable roles he craves.
When their father runs afoul of some Indian thugs and needs $2,000 fast, he concocts a ridiculous plan to hold up a bank, a decision that eventually sends him and his wife to jail and thrusts Berner and Dell into a world that has no use for them. After reading “Canada,” you will never hear about a convicted criminal without considering the invisible children whose lives have been scrambled in ways they can’t possibly understand.
“They were not the people to rob a bank,” Dell notes tactfully as he struggles to explain why his parents made the ruinous mistakes they did. On some level, he knows, “It’s a mystery how we are. A mystery,” but he’s intrigued by the interaction of fate and character. “They were ... regular people tricked by circumstances and bad instincts, along with bad luck, to venture outside of boundaries they knew to be right, and then found themselves unable to go back.”
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