Ford has concocted a remarkable, controlled tale from the many themes on which he has based his career. The novel is one that feels, like the yarn Dell shares, meditated upon for years and years, perfected in a way that only comes with age and experience. When Dell cops, “I am blessed with memory,” late in his story, one can’t help but believe the same can be said for his literary creator. — Ben Woodard
(Author photo: Laura Wilson)
Richard Ford has made a healthy living dealing tragic narrative blows to the residents of Great Falls, Montana. In his brilliant story collection Rock Springs (1987), as well as the short novel Wildlife (1990), fathers brawl and kill, mothers sleep around, and families dissolve amongst the city’s flat panorama. To Ford, Great Falls is a place where bad things happen to regular people, where children are left to fend for themselves, and where the line between good and evil ever trembles. Canada, the author’s latest Montana venture, finds the author comfortably exercising these principles while simultaneously dazzling the reader with detailed, rich prose. A story of desperate parents and the consequences of their poor judgment, the novel is heartbreaking, calculated, and nothing short of a masterpiece.
Canada unfurls through the mouth of Dell Parsons, a retired English teacher looking back to the spring of 1960, when he is fifteen-years-old and living with his parents and fraternal twin sister, Berner, in Great Falls. Dell speaks in a confessional tone and wastes no time in divulging the crux of his narrative, declaring:
First, I’ll tell you about the robbery our parents committed. Then about the murders, which happened later. The robbery is the more important part, since it served to set my and my sister’s lives on the courses they eventually followed. (3)
This announcement is reminiscent of Ford’s story “Optimists,” from Rock Springs, which opens with a similar flair:
All of this that I am about to tell you happened when I was only fifteen 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. (Rock Springs, 157)
Yet while young Dell initially seems analogous to that of Frank Brinson, the narrator of “Optimists”—he’s friendless, concerned about school, and coping with an unstable family—the forty years of careful introspection provided by Dell’s older voice adds a dramatic heft that separates the character from his less seasoned literary cousin. As Dell speaks, one senses both nostalgia and experience alive on his tongue. While mapping out the elder Parsons’ foray into lawlessness—his father Bev’s involvement in a flawed stolen meat scam leaves the clan owing $2,000 to a group of Cree Indians—Dell frequently pauses to consider his family’s fate. “It seems possible, I suppose, to look back at our small family as being doomed, as waiting to sink below the churning waves, and being destined for corruption and failure,” he muses early in the novel. “But I cannot truly portray us that way, or the time as a bad or unhappy time, in spite of it being far out of the ordinary.” (31-32) His is not merely a recounting of events, but rather a chronicle that reads as if meditated upon for decades.
This contemplation continues once the elder Parsons are captured for their crime. Berner runs away from home and Dell finds himself jettisoned to Saskatchewan in an attempt to escape the clutches of social services. Left in the care of Arthur Remlinger, a hotelier and the brother of a family friend, the boy is assured safety from the troubles lingering in Montana. But within days of his arrival, Dell wonders if Remlinger and his right hand man, the uneasy Charley Quarters, pose to him an even greater threat. “… Arthur Remlinger had seemed like a different person each time I made contact with him—which naturally confused me and made me feel even more alone than I would’ve otherwise,” the aged Dell recalls. (309) And as Remlinger slowly incorporates Dell into his business and personal life, the discomfort between the two grows. Sitting at a café, Dell listens in befuddlement as Remlinger rambles on about Canada, Tolstoy, and the Bronze Age before finding himself locked in the following exchange:
“Do you think you have a clear mind, Dell?”
I didn’t understand what that meant. Possibly a clear mind was the opposite of unsteady. I wanted to have one. “Yes, sir,” I said. I’d ordered a hamburger and had begun to eat it.
He nodded and moved his tongue around behind his lips, then cleared his throat. “Living out here produces a fantasy of great certainty.” He smiled again, but the smile slowly faded as he looked at me. “People do crazy things out of despair when their certainty fades. You’re not inclined to do that, I guess. You’re not in despair, are you?”
“No, sir.” The word made me think of my mother in her jail cell—smiling and helpless. She’d been in despair.
Arthur took a sip of his coffee, holding the cup around its rim—not by its little curved handle—blowing on the surface before he sipped. “That’s settled then. Despair’s out.” He smiled again. (312-13)
This chat, a sort of test on the part of Remlinger, pulls Dell closer to the underhanded dealings of his keeper (as well as the “murders” mentioned in Dell’s opening monologue), yet it also illustrates Ford’s masterful understanding of the power of conversation. In this moment and throughout Canada, the author’s sporadic employment of dialogue—most of the novel’s exchanges are told in summary—works wonders. These scenes are lean and spare, filled with indirect, seemingly distracted comments that, upon hindsight and context, speak volumes and drive the narrative to a higher level of excellence. They leap from the page and leave the reader spellbound by how much can be said in so few words. And as the story chugs toward its spiraling finale, the muscle of these conversations hang in the air like ghostly informants, warnings that tried their best to prime Dell and his cohorts for the horrors that wait for them in the cold Saskatchewan night.
In a recently published interview with The Daily Beast, Richard Ford was asked about his return to Great Falls as setting in Canada, and after touching on the city’s “dramatic landscape” and how he initially “just liked the name Great Falls,” Ford turned reflective, much like his character Dell. “I’m—I guess—by nature a writer who returns to subjects,” Ford said. “It must be I think that each time [I] write about something (Montana, New Jersey, real estate, families in distress) I open opportunities for later, even fuller consideration.” This “fuller consideration” is evident in Canada, for here Ford has concocted a remarkable, controlled tale from the many themes on which he has based his career. The novel is one that feels, like the yarn Dell shares, meditated upon for years and years, perfected in a way that only comes with age and experience. When Dell cops, “I am blessed with memory,” late in his story (416), one can’t help but believe the same can be said for his literary creator.
— Benjamin Woodard
Benjamin Woodard lives in Connecticut. His reviews have been featured in Drunken Boat, Hunger Mountain, Rain Taxi Review of Books, and other fine publications. His fiction has appeared in Numéro Cinq. You can find him at benjaminjwoodard.com.