May 26 (Bloomberg) -- Richard Ford opens “Canada” with a spoiler: “First, I’ll tell about the robbery our parents committed. Then about the murders, which happened later.”
Those sentences immediately signal that, whatever its subject, this isn’t going to be a suspense novel.
The first section of “Canada” unfolds in Great Falls, Montana, in the late spring and summer of 1960. Sputnik is in the skies, the Kennedy-Nixon face-off is shaping up and Dell Parsons, the narrator, and his twin sister, Berner --“she was six minutes older” -- are 15.
For 200 pages, Dell meticulously reconstructs the small-potatoes bank heist that blew apart his family when it led to the jailing of his parents: Bev, his father, an ex-Air Force good ole boy from Alabama; and Neeva, his mother, the bookish daughter of Polish-Jewish immigrants who settled in Tacoma, Washington.
“They were in no way exceptional or significant” -- except, of course, for their crime. “I’m intrigued,” Dell writes, “by how ordinary behavior exists so close beside its opposite.”
He lays out the petty stolen-beef scheme that goes south and lands Bev in financial trouble; the planning for the bank job he thinks is going to get him out of it; the robbery and its tense, bleak aftermath.
Since he fills us in beforehand on everything that’s going to happen, the suspense a reader would normally feel is replaced by dread -- but not for Dell, who’s looking back from a distance of half a century. Dell is serene and accepting, and readers of Ford will recognize acceptance as one of his recurrent themes.
No Hidden Meanings
It goes hand and hand with a suspicion of revelation, which in Ford’s last novel, “The Lay of the Land” (2006), he dismissed as a lie because its effect is “to distract us from the more precious here and now.”
He writes something very similar at the end of “Canada.” The now-growing-old Dell advises us “not to hunt too hard for hidden or opposite meanings -- even in the books you read -- but to look as much as possible straight at the things you can see in broad daylight.
“In the process of articulating to yourself the things you see, you’ll always pretty well make sense and learn to accept the world.” Ford may be the most down-to-earth major novelist America has ever produced.
Here and Now
His attachment to the here and now is what leads him to layer such a heavy impasto of detail over everything he writes about, and to give the big stuff away in advance so that it won’t strike with the shock of revelation.
But since I love plot myself, I’m going to reveal as little as I can about Part Two of “Canada” -- the part that explains the title. I will say, though, that Ford’s description of the lonely five weeks Dell spends following the robbery are the finest part of the book.
“Nothing later in life,” he realizes, “could be as completely normal as it had been for me living in Great Falls.” Or, really, normal at all.
Part Three is a beautiful and melancholy epilogue in which Dell reflects on how those long-ago events formed him and led him to the calm acceptance -- hardly joyful but far from unhappy -- that blows like a breeze through this surprisingly tranquil book.
Sometimes “Canada” is low-key to the point of stupefaction; reading it requires patience. I’ll admit I did some complaining along the way. But Ford makes you care about lonely Dell; he makes you like him. When I got to the end of this long novel, I closed it with regret.
“Canada” is published by Ecco in the U.S. and will be published by Bloomsbury in the U.K. in June (420 pages, $27.99). To buy this book in North America, click here.
(Craig Seligman is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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