JR: Being a devout Richard Ford fan, a Frank Bascombe junkie (I had the nom de plume Frank Bascombe for over ten years, as the book reviewer at Ain’t it Cool News) , a lover all things Ford, despite what Colson Whitehead has said, and believe me, he is entitled to his opinion.
Canada surprised me, and in a way introduced me to a new Richard Ford. I was sad when I heard the news that Ford was leaving Knopf. I know how much his career hinged on that publisher, in some ways their separate successes can be attributed to the other. I know Ecco has a great track record and Daniel Halpern is aces. I met Richard Ford once, I told him how much I loved his writing, particularly the first story in Rock Springs, and the ending of that story. Ford recited the ending to me, word for word, and thanked me for coming to the reading. That left me forever a follower of his writing. It might be the writer in me that loves his work so much, or it could be that my father introduced me to Ford years ago, I think it was the Rock Springs collection that he gave me, with sentences underlined, and notes in the margins.
Canada is a wild piece of writing, bold, exuberant, at times veiled with sadness but mostly a big-hearted epic. Dell Parsons is a kid when he begins to realize his parents aren’t anything like the rest of the adults he sees. It seems they are getting themselves in dutch with the law, a robbery which will change everything. His twin sister Berner is spry and full of wit. I was crestfallen when her character only gets half the book, but after all the story is narrated by Dell. This novel is split in three sections. The first hinges on the robbery and is where Dell and Berner really hit their stride, and I think the entire novel can be summed up in chapter 11, where Dell really see’s his father for who he is. The second part is deceptively slow, loose and purposefully uneven, but the third is where Ford wraps it up, carefully, in an almost whimsical and breathless fashion. We haven’t done this type of discussion in a long time, but DH, I’m curious to hear what you think.
DH: As readers, JR, we follow different drummers. I know that Ford is central to your literary imagination but he is not central to mine. This is the first Ford novel I have read. I want to make a crude distinction, a riff on Jane Austen, and say that there are novels of Sense and novels of Sensibility. I would put Richard Ford in the first camp while I principally read novels in the later category.
I am as far away from loving Hemingway as you can get but I still acknowledge the great H’s paramount technical skill. I’d choose Richard Ford as Hemingway’s most likely contemporary successor. But I sense echoes of other great strands of the American literary tradition in his writing as well. I think if Mark Twain were still with us he’d be a big fan of Richard Ford’s with Dell Parsons getting recognition as a distant cousin of Tom Sawyer.
Canada is in a crisp three-part form. The starting time: 1960. Part One takes place in Montana. It’s 50% of the story and could almost stand alone as a near flawless novela. By Part Two we are in Canada. The third part is shortest, about one third of Part Two and serves as a ruminative epilogue.
One of the fascinating aspects of Ford’s narrative technique is that he pre-figures decisive events in his story. It takes remarkable boldness and confidence as a writer to provide your own spoilers! We know the crack-brained attempt at armed robbery that Dell’s parents are going to commit will fail. The whole first part of the novel contains a meticulous analysis of Bev’s faulty reasoning and incompetent criminal technique. And how about giving Dell’s father a girls name? Beverly? This isn’t an English novel. Not even here on the East Coast do we name guys Beverly. But we are in a neo-Hemingway framework. Competence is one of the touchstones that define traditional masculinity. Beverly is a major fuck-up. I even get the impression that he becomes a criminal because he’s too lazy to be honest.
Neeva, his wife, was the most fascinating character for me. She has far more sense than her husband but she still agrees to take a crack at armed robbery, a decision that destroys her family. Neeva should have ended this mismatch of a marriage by walking out on Bev year ago. Ford speculates about an alternative history for her where she moves to a college town and maybe lives a good life as the wife of a professor.
But she is perhaps too timid to walk out on her marriage and, in effect, save her life. She’s attracted to the robbery because it’s a quick and dirty way to get away from her husband. After the robbery she’ll take her half of the loot and split with the kids for Seattle.
JR, you mentioned Dell’s non-identical twin sister, Berner. I also wanted to highlight the wonderful subsidiary character of Mrs. Reminger. Mrs. R literally provides the bridge to Part Two of the novel by smuggling Dell into Canada after his parents get busted. She’s a wonderful character reminiscent of those wrecked eccentrics with the funny names that you find in Dickens’ novels that help the hero to find their way in life.
It’s significant that Dell and his sister Berner are twins. It suggests to me a alternative novel in which the women in this story would have moved to stage center instead of the men. I loved Richard Ford’s women. I just wished they could have been more of them in this story. This novel belongs to 15 year-old Dell. But I was grateful to see Berner make a poignant reappearance at the end.
JR, I need at least one more round in this discussion. I want to cover what happens in Parts Two and Three of Canada and then offer a general assessment or reassessment depending on what you have to say.
JR: I don’t really see part two as anything more than a rite of passage for Dell. He’s living in a rugged landscape, or structure, that Ford is dragging him through. For me, it’s not the book. It’s part one, the failed robbery, the copious attempts at making money, his father is a wuss, and a moron. Ford puts him down right away by giving him a woman’s name. Though I have heard that on the East Coast, not to be a ball breaker about it. This is a tragedy from page one. We know it’s a failed robbery, but with bated breath we hold on hoping it will work out. Even when the cops show up, it’s still better than the indians they hoodwinked on the meat scheme.
Ford is a very clever writer in the fact that he only tells the story from Dell’s point of view. It gets a little tiresome because Dell is holding the idea that things will work out. Ford is a genius storyteller with the way he folds part one in on itself over and over, and makes it look new every single time. I think what is most interesting about this book is Dell the grown up, and how my imagination fills in the blanks. Obviously Ford delivers the most indelible experiences for the sake of the novel. What happens to Dell when he gets older? Why did his sister fall out of the story, I wonder how she got old, and wanted to witness that. I would have prefered the story told in reverse, or at least a fractured chronological order; Robbery last, that beyond great murder, coming of age in Canada, Berner and her life, maybe even Dell as an adult. Why was Berner so bad a lover? Was it her teacher, Mom? Or the never was there Dad? When I lay my head down on the pillow at night, I want to know the answers to these questions, but only Mr. Ford has those answers.
This book is very reminiscent of the movie Days of Heaven, in tone and style, minus the love story that made the movie so heartbreaking. Ford has wrestled a big book to the ground, filled the pages with wonderful insights and flawless prose. It is a lot to take in, for sure, but worth the trip.
DH: There’s a lot of fascinating parallelism in this plot. I’ve mentioned the offbeat Mrs. Reminger, who as one of Neeva’s very few friends, smuggles Dell into Canada so he can avoid a Montana state home for juveniles. Dell is taken to a remote Nordic waste strip in Saskatchewan. He is to be placed under the care of her brother, Arthur, who owns a small fleabag hotel that caters to U.S. tourists who want to slaughter geese, the Sports.
This a a profound move on RF’s part; I marvel at it. Mrs. Reminger is a benign presence in the story but her brother is a psychopath. He’s on the lam in Canada for a terrorist bombing in the Midwest where a union official was killed. So Mrs. Reminger, well-intentioned, sends a naïve 15 year-old old boy to the devil.
I was intrigued by what I call the seduction scene. You don’t have to be physically present to seduce someone. Dell takes on housecleaning duties at the hotel and draws the lot of cleaning Arthur’s private apartment.
There’s a bed in the apartment, of course. But I’m not talking about a physical seduction but rather a spiritual one. There in Arthur’s rooms are a closet full of expensive suits, imported from Boston. Arthur is the only one in town who’s dressed to the nines this way. There’s a choice collection of literary texts sure to appeal to a budding bibliophile like Dell, as well as a wacked-out group of extreme political documents sure to add a note of disquiet.
But the ultimate talisman of seduction is an expensive chess set which Dell lovingly caresses. Dell is an avid chess fan although he’s never had the opportunity to play with another person, only with himself. He survives in the waste strip of a shack that he is quartered in by studying his chess magazines which chronicle the deft moves of his heroes, famous chess masters. This squalid residence is the very shack that Arthur lived in when he first escaped to Canada and it is full of cartons of his stuff.
Dell is being invited by the story to become like Arthur, to admire him, to aspire to him as a freak version of humanity. Dell is employed at this blot of a town butchering the geese that are hunted by the Sports, aided by Arthur’s handyman who a monster of maladaptation, a total carnival show and also gay, he wears lipstick while showing Dell how to butcher geese. It gave me pause. A touch of homophobia, perhaps, in this brilliant text.
Behind the wheel, Arthur mows down a flock a helpless pheasant because they are in his way on the highway. Dell. shocked, is in the car. The slaughter of geese and pheasants, this is sadistic stuff. It’s a prelude to more slaughter to come. Richard Ford, again prefiguring his plot, tells us again and again that Dell’s sojourn in Saskatchewan will end in disaster. The reader is left wondering what the disaster will be as the threads of plot are slowly pulled together like a garotte around your neck.
I need to escape to the last part of the story. It’s transcendent and short. Dell is an oldster now, we are in contemporary times. He is about to retire from high school teaching in Winnipeg. He’s has become a Canadian but heads south one last time to visit Berner. I won’t say more about that visit except that it was the highlight of the book for me.
To Hemingway’s masculine virtues of competence and bravery, both of which Dell learns to achieve, Richard Ford seems to add a component of his own: compassion and the recognition that the time comes to let go. Dell succeeds in becoming a true man, or as I would prefer to say, a mensch.
Is that a spoiler? Tough. Richard Ford has provided me with the precedent. Is Canada the True North of American literature? It greatly amuses me to think of Richard Ford as co-opting the entire classic tradition of American literature and delivering it to the Canadians as its true point of fulfillment.
But I know that’s not true. It’s just that Richard Ford has shown us, as he indicates himself in the masterful text of Canada, that the crossing of borders is important.