Prairie tale

Canada, by Richard Ford, Bloomsbury £18.99/Ecco, $27.99, 420 pages

June 2 2012 / Financial Times

The intrigue of Canada, this novel of crime and punishment, is not what happens and when but how and why. It begins with a bold declaration, as Richard Ford’s novels and stories often do: “First, I’ll tell about the robbery our parents committed. Then about the murders, which happened later.”

The key word here is “tell”. The novel has a highly charged plot – as well as two murders there is a suicide – but it is the telling that matters most, or perhaps that should be the retelling, because repetition and reiteration are the organising principles.

The narrator, Dell Parsons, is in late middle age and obsessively reflecting on what he calls the “event of our lives”. As a 15 year old living with his twin sister in the small country town of Great Falls, Montana, his parents, out of luck and of love, carry out a botched bank robbery in the summer of 1960. After they are arrested and imprisoned, Dell’s sister flees and he is taken by a friend of his mother’s to live across the border in a remote Canadian prairie town. There in the boundless wilderness he discovers painful truths about his parents’ ruin but also falls under the influence of a small-time Nietzschean and fanatic, a handsome, well dressed and educated man who murders without remorse and leaves the boy even more confused about his place in the world.

The story Dell tells is necessarily incomplete, pieced together from old newspaper reports, a journal his mother wrote in prison after her arrest and before her suicide which she called her “chronicle”, and from memory. He remembers as we all do, unreliably and uncertain of the true motivations of others.

Some of this is familiar territory. Ford’s fourth novel, Wildlife, was also set in Great Falls in the summer of 1960. Like Canada, it is narrated as a sombre retrospective by a man in middle age trying to understand why his father took a wrong turn in life. As in Canada, the narrator seeks peace but can never be at peace as he recalls the summer his father left home to fight a forest fire threatening the town and whose departure breaks the family.

Ford’s men are invariably disappointed, from small towns, lonely and unfulfilled but also prone to dreaminess. They endure the ordinary losses of the everyday: money worries, failed relationships, thwarted careers. “I stick to the small lives of human beings,” Ford once said, “that’s the real stuff.” The lives he chronicles may be small but what are epic about his fictions are the North American landscapes in which they are set and his lyric style. Ford’s sentences in this novel are extraordinarily poised, never exhibiting strain. Sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph, he never hurries as he elaborates and expands.

Canada comprises 69 short chapters, sometimes no more than a few pages long, and it is told from a dual perspective – that of the confused child who recreates the events of all those years ago as if trapped in the present moment, and that of the aged man he becomes, offering retrospective interpretation. The voice and tone are formidably consistent: puzzled, ruminative, yearning.

Ford’s best novel, The Sportswriter, which brought him fame, wealth and a wide readership at the age of 40, is narrated by a 38 year-old named Frank Bascombe, for whom the best already seems to be in the past, even if he doesn’t quite know it. After having had early literary success with a book of stories, Bascombe no longer writes seriously. When we meet him he is drifting, separated from his wife and mourning the death of his son. “If sportswriting teaches you anything,” he confides, “and there is much truth to it as well as plenty of lies, it is that for your life to be worth anything you must sooner or later face the possibility of terrible, searing regret … I believe I have done these two things. Faced down regret. Avoided ruin. And I am still here to tell about it.”

Facing down regret and avoiding ruin, these are the lessons that Dell Parsons must learn, too, and at times he sounds attractively like the Bascombe of The Sportswriter (rather than of the two subsequent novels, Independence Day and The Lay of the Land, in what became the Bascombe trilogy, when the sentences lengthened, the style became more bloated and dear old Frank rather tiresomely garrulous once he’d turned away from sports).

Canada is ultimately a book about the choices we make when we are desperate but unable to speak about our desperation, and the questions we wished we’d asked when we had the chance to ask them. It’s too long and would have been more successful as a tauter and more urgent book; better edited, or edited at all, in fact. Ford is a major American writer and the tendency for those such as he is always to want to write the Big One. Still, it’s good to be in his company when he is writing well, as he is for much of this novel.