Parents. You trust them and see the world through their eyes. They make plans and you follow, their logic not being completely clear, but you go along. Life metes out some choices but the accident of our parents meeting, marrying, and having children hurls us unrelentingly onto a path not of our choosing or, in most instances, not even theirs. Then in turn we make our own choices and in retrospect that is our life. These inexplicable choices, a form of accidental determinism, are what Richard Ford deals with in Canada, destined to become a classic American novel.
This is a coming of age novel, narrated by the fifteen year old protagonist, Dell Parsons, but it is written by him some fifty years later. Thus, the voice in the novel is that of a somewhat naïve boy, but written with the knowledge of a mature man, one who we learn towards the end is the teacher of literature in high school. (How Ford walks this fine line is evidence of his writing skills.)
In fact, among the novels he teaches is The Great Gatsby and The Mayor of Casterbridge “that to me seem secretly about my young life.” And, indeed, Canada echoes some of our narrator’s favorites, with a Gatsby like character one of the novel’s centerpieces and Hardy’s sense of place and dark fatalistic themes playing out in Canada as well.
Ford has long been one of my favorite authors, ever since reading Sportswriter and more recently Lay of the Land, both part of the Frank Bascombe trilogy, which also included Independence Day. Canada elevates his work further.
He gets right to the point in the few sentences of the first paragraph and if this isn’t a sufficient “hook” to reel in the reader, then this book isn’t for you: “First, I’ll tell 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. Nothing would make complete sense without that being told first.”
This novel deals with themes about life, choices, and chance, and it is fittingly staged on the sprawling small towns and prairies of Montana and the Province of Saskatchewan in the late 1950’s. There is a sense of isolation and solemnity of an Edward Hopper painting, a heaviness Dell Parsons has to deal with and in his innocence he goes forward, somehow ending up with a life more of his choosing than his less fortunate fraternal twin sister, Berner.
Poor Berner. Never even likes her name, but that was the one given to her by their father, ironically “Bev” Parsons. He is from Alabama, a fast talker, engaging, and able to turn on the southern charm. He wanted to be a pilot in the war but was a bombardier, dropping bombs on unknown victims. Dell thinks that it was his father’s charm that attracted his mother to him and she had “unluckily gotten pregnant from their one hasty encounter after meeting at a party honoring returning airmen.” Their mother is Jewish, which complicates where they can live (the south is out of the question). Her name is Neeva Kamper, and she is as different from Bev as she could be: “His optimism, her alienated skepticism. His southernness, her immigrant Jewishness. His lack of education, her preoccupation with it and sense of unfulfillment. When they realized it…they each began to experience a tension and a foreboding peculiar to each of them and not shared by the other.”
After the Air Force Bev sells new and, then, used cars, while Neeva teachers 5th grade school, they having finally settled down in Great Falls, Montana (where people didn’t even know what a Jew was). But Bev is a schemer and wants more and finds ways to make money selling stolen beef he acquires from local Indians, but this leads to a debt and he needs much more money, fast, the Indians threatening him and his family. He had always fantasized about robbing a bank, thinking his fast talking ability would enable him to do so smoothly, without much risk, and as long as he robbed less than $10K, the government would pay the price and depositors wouldn’t, and he wouldn’t hurt anyone, so why not? His son could drive the getaway car. he thought. Neeva steps in to protect Dell and the inexorable fulcrum of the novel is set in motion.
Neeva has plans to use some of the money to go to her parents in Seattle with her children, leaving Bev. But she also has a contingency plan for the kids if they are caught – a friend has a brother, a very bright man, one who had once attended Harvard, but now lived in Saskatchewan where he owns a hotel, and this friend, Mildred, agrees to drive Berner and Dell there so they would not wind up in an orphanage. The parents are apprehended, but Berner flees to join a boyfriend, and Dell is left alone to accompany Mildred. Where they were going is unknown to him until they practically cross the Canadian border.
During the drive, Mildred offers advice to Dell: “’Don’t spend time thinking old gloomy….Your life’s going be a lot of exciting ways before you’re dead. So just pay attention to the present. Don’t rule parts out, and be sure you’ve always got something you don’t mind losing. That’s important…Does that make sense to you?’ She reached across the seat and knocked her soft fist against my knee the way you’d knock on a door. ‘Does it? Knock, knock?’ ‘I guess it does,’ I said. Thought it didn’t really seem to matter what I agreed with. That was the final time Mildred and I talked about my future.”
He is the perpetual optimist, and learns to adjust. One of his interests is chess, always carrying chess magazines and his chess pieces, hoping to find a game, but ending up playing against himself. His philosophy is expressed as the novel ends its “American segment,” Dell thinking, “It’s odd, though, what makes you think about the truth. It’s so rarely involved in the events of your life. I quit thinking about the truth for a time then. Its finer points seemed impossible to find among the facts. If there was a hidden design, living almost never shed light on it. Much easier to think about chess – the true character of the men always staying the way they were intended, a higher power moving everything around. I wondered, for just that moment, if we – Berner and I – were like that: small, fixed figures being ordered around by forces greater than ourselves. I decided we weren’t. Whether we liked it or even knew it, we were accountable only to ourselves now, not to some greater design. If our characters were truly fixed, they would have to be revealed later.”
While Hardy’s characters always seem to come to crossroads, ones that inevitably lead to their downfall and most of the main characters in Canada seem to suffer the same negative fate, Dell’s trusting, and childlike-innocence ironically enables him to escape similar misfortune.
His greatest challenge is dealing with the Gatsby-like character, the person to whom he has been abandoned, Mildred’s brother, the mysterious Arthur Remlinger. (“He was tall and handsome and had fine blond hair parted carefully on the right side…Mildred had said he was thirty-eight but his face was a young man’s handsome face. At the same time he seemed older, given how he was dressed. He wasn’t consistent, the way I was used to people being.”) Dell had fantasized that he would befriend Remlinger, perhaps play chess with him, learn from him, but he rarely sees him and is assigned to a strange young scoundrel named Charley Quarters (a character straight out of Dickens) who works for Remlinger and serves as a guide to “Sports,” men who visit the Remlinger’s hotel to hunt geese. Charley sets up decoys and cleans the dead geese and this is the trade Dell learns for his keep. We find out that Remlinger has something on Charlie, something he could reveal, but Charlie has even more on Remlinger, a dark secret that becomes the denouement of the novel and one in which Remlinger involves Dell. To Charley’s credit, he reveals that secret to Dell (one that Dell at first finds a way of doubting given his innocence) and warns Dell that he is merely a pawn to Remlinger,
As this terrible secret begins to be played out, Dell is at first caught off guard, thinking “I’d had plenty of time since the day before to route everything through my mind, and observe the things I needed to know, and be satisfied with not knowing all that was true, and to feel that probably not the worst was, and that in all likelihood nothing bad was going to happen….’Our most profound experiences are physical events’ was a saying my father often pronounced when my mother, or when Berner or I, was tortured by something we were worried about. I always took it as true – although I hadn’t known precisely what it meant. But it had become part of my sense of being normal to believe that physical events, important ones, that changed lives and the course of destiny, were actually rare and almost never happened. My parents’ arrest, as terrible as it had been, proved that – in comparison to my life before, where there had been very little physical activity, just waiting and anticipating. And in spite of believing what my father said about the importance of physical events, I’d come to think that what mattered more (this was my child’s protected belief) was how you felt about things; what you assumed; what you thought and feared and remembered. That was what life mostly was to me – events that went on in my brain.” Until Remlinger reveals his true character.
But Dell befriends Remlinger’s paramour Flo, who is an artist (whose style, fittingly, is Hopper’s “Nighthawk” school of painting). “Her arrangement with Arthur Remlinger suited her because he had money and good manners and was handsome, in spite of being private and an American and younger than she was.” Flo arranges for Dell’s ultimate escape to Winnipeg where her son and daughter-in-law live and they would put Dell in high school there. “She said I should consider becoming a Canadian….This would fix everything. Canada was better than America, she said, and everyone knows that – except Americans. Canada had everything America ever had, but no one was made about it. You could be normal in Canada, and Canada would love to have me.”
Ford’s writing is sparse and compelling and the novel unfolds like a force of nature. He is finally reunited with his twin sister, but life has dealt her a harsher hand, she being more the pawn than a power piece in her own life. “Her life turned out to be different from mine. I have had one wife and been a high school teacher and sponsor of chess clubs through my entire working years. Berner had had at least three husbands and unfortunately seemed able to please herself only on the margins of conventional life. I lost track of most of it…. [She] was bitter about the ‘substitute life’ she’d led instead of the better one she should’ve led if it had all worked out properly – our parents, etc. Of course she was right. I HAD given up a great deal, as Mildred told me I’d need to. Only I was satisfied about it and about what I’d gotten in return.”
Canada is a haunting work of fine writing; my only regret is that its 400 some pages flew by so quickly.