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Across the Border: Richard Ford’s Canada

By posted at 12:00 pm on May 23, 2012 8

coverHalfway through Richard Ford’s new novel, Canada, the young narrator, Dell, having been abandoned by his family, is spirited across the border between Montana and the Canadian province of Saskatchewan in the back seat of a car driven by family friend Mildred Remlinger. The world Dell has known in Great Falls, Mont., is in ruins following the arrest of both of his parents in connection with a botched bank robbery, and the world he is about to enter is entirely unknown to him:

Ahead, where the highway was only a pencil line into the distance, two dark low bumps became visible on the horizon, backed by blue sky in which there was not a floating cloud. I wouldn’t have seen the bumps if I hadn’t looked where Mildred was looking. It was Canada there. Indistinguishable. Same sky. Same daylight. Same air. But different. How was it possible I was going to it?

The two dark low bumps cohere into huts for customs officials on this lonely border road, and once Dell passes them, the novel, which has been spinning its wheels for more than 200 pages, suddenly locks into gear and begins to cruise toward greatness. In part, this sense of velocity is literal: after weeks of hanging around waiting for his parents to commit the idiotic crime announced on the first page of the novel, Dell is finally on the move, in the back of a car driven by a near-stranger, observing the world not through the eyes of a bored and perplexed teenager, but through the eyes of a first-class novelist inhabiting the consciousness of a frightened 15-year-old boy. Buzzards hang “in the sky, curving and motionless.” The night air is “sweet as bread.” The land itself is not merely land, but in a marvelously unforced way, an indicator of the narrator’s sense of loss and lostness:

Once we were out of the hills, there were no landmarks…There were even fewer trees. A single low white house with a windbreak and a barn and a tractor could be seen in the distance, then later another one. The course of the sun would be what told you where you were — that and whatever you personally knew about: a road, a fence line, the regular direction the wind came from.

Ford’s characters, too, which in the American portions of the novel, have been largely made up of loose collections of physical description and character tics, become stranger and far more interesting once we hit Canada. The first person Dell meets in Canada is the novel’s single great achievement: a gruff, unsavory Métis Indian named Charley Quarters, who lives alone in a filthy trailer and spends his days leading Americans on geese-hunting expeditions, but also wears lipstick and eye shadow and writes poetry.

Charley Quarters is the real thing, the sort of character who could exist nowhere but in fiction, but who feels utterly alive and real on the page, and for 50 pages or so, this odd, misbegotten novel comes alive as Dell settles into his strange new world, living in a shack in the middle of ghost town in the process of being reclaimed by the surrounding prairie. And then — splat — the book dies again, never to show any more than the occasional sign of life for another hundred-odd frustrating pages.

In truth, Canada is two novels, neither of which has much to do with the other, or, for that matter, with Dell, its ostensible narrator and central character. In the first novel, set in Montana in the summer of 1960, Dell’s parents, Bev and Neeva Parsons, rob a bank in a manner so criminally inept and for reasons so lacking in basic common sense that Ford is forced to spend dozens of pages just making it sound like actual human beings might do such a thing. The second novel, set in the fictional town of Fort Royal, Saskatchewan, focuses on Arthur Remlinger, a mysterious American hotelier and one-time political hothead who is in hiding after committing a politically motivated crime in Detroit years before.

Neither of these crimes, along with a double murder that, again, Ford announces on page one, make much sense, but from the reader’s point of view, the far larger problem is how little they touch on the life of the narrator. The bank robbery, which puts his parents in jail and causes his twin sister, Berner, to run away to her own, separate fate, radically alters the trajectory of Dell’s life, but up until then, it really has nothing to do with him. For 200 pages, Dell moons around Great Falls, friendless, reading obsessively about chess and beekeeping, while his idiot father loses job after job and gets on the wrong side of some no-good local Indians, leading him to conclude that his only hope is to pack his wife in the car and rob a bank in North Dakota without bothering to wear a mask or otherwise cover his tracks.

Once in Canada, after a few chapters in which Dell finally seems to be participating in his own life, Ford loses interest in his fate and changes the subject to Arthur Remlinger’s crime, which has even less to do with Dell than the bank robbery. The reader is asked to wade through page after page of exposition about what Arthur did years ago and why he did it, largely delivered in summarized dialogue by Charley Quarters. Why is Charley telling young Dell all this? I couldn’t figure that one out, but by then, frankly, my dear, I didn’t give a damn.

covercovercover One comes away from Canada feeling as though a less gifted author was trying to write a knock-off of a Richard Ford novel, and has made a hash of it. All the classic Fordisms are there: the sensitive teen at the mercy of hopelessly bad parents, the lonesome Western landscapes, the borderline clichés dressed up as prairie wisdom, the sense that all is in elegy to a lost and fallen world. But unlike in Ford’s best work — the first two Frank Bascombe novels, The Sportswriter and Independence Day, and the excellent story collection, Rock Springs — where all this stuff works, in Canada, the old Ford magic comes off as half-baked and pretentious.

Richard Ford has earned his place in the pantheon of late-20th-century American novelists, and 15 years ago, one could plausibly argue he was among the best Americans writing, but his later work — that is, most of what he’s done since he won the Pulitzer Prize for Independence Day in 1996 — has seemed of a lesser quality. Now, this new book, Canada, exhibits a degree of badness that makes one wonder if the earlier stuff was really all that good. Wasn’t Frank Bascombe always a wee bit of a gasbag? Didn’t some of the stories in Rock Springs seem a little, well, contrived?

If you have a soft spot in your heart for Frank Bascombe and the other hard-luck characters in Ford’s earlier fiction, you may well want to skip this trip across the border.





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8 Responses to “Across the Border: Richard Ford’s Canada”

  1. Poornima Apte
    at 8:46 am on May 25, 2012

    Excellent review! I completely agree.

  2. DRR
    at 8:00 pm on May 29, 2012

    I haven’t ready Canada yet, and liked, but didn’t love the Bascombe novels. But if I’m reviewing the review, this is a pretty typical review of a novel-by-a-name. “He wasn’t enough himself and in fact, now that he’s famous, we question whether being himself is even all that great.”

  3. Sonya
    at 11:27 pm on May 30, 2012

    I wasn’t bored at all by the first, second, or third parts. In fact, this is one of the best novels I’ve read this year. I guess now I’ll go to bed wondering if my readings historically have been bad, or if, perhaps, there might be another reading that could give Canada more credit.

  4. Rich
    at 4:48 pm on June 7, 2012

    Why on earth would anyone need convincing that people could be “criminally inept” or “lacking in basic common sense”?

  5. Eric
    at 12:06 pm on June 12, 2012

    “One comes away from Canada feeling as though a less gifted author was trying to write a knock-off of a Richard Ford novel, and has made a hash of it.”

    While your list of classic “Fordisms” is accurate, there are countless differences between this novel and the Bascombe novels. If you come at this book thinking it’s Frank on the prairie, you’re hopelessly lost already. I find this review severely discounted based on this sentence.

  6. Michael Bourne
    at 12:59 pm on June 12, 2012

    Eric: you need to read Rock Springs, and also his little-known book, Wildlife. Ford has very much covered this territory, more succinctly and, to my mind, with greater skill. That said, I’ve been surprised by how well this book has been reviewed, often by writers of far greater prestige and experience than me. I found long stretches of Canada painfully, painfully bad, but obviously others have loved it. What can you do? To each his or her own.

  7. Tom Barnes
    at 6:49 pm on June 25, 2012

    I thought this was vastly more entertaining than the rather tiresome Frank Bascombe. I wasn’t bored at all by this book.

  8. George Fleury
    at 8:10 pm on November 21, 2013

    I too found a strange disconnect between the two sections of the novel. That being said, I liked the book quite a lot, and there’s a tangential logic linking the two narratives. It’s not entirely satisfying–the sweet-natured bungling of Bev Parsons vs. the cold and egotistical machinations of Remlinger isn’t entirely convincing, but the parallel is somewhat interesting (in addition, Native North Americans play a prominent role in the events of both sections). I agree that Charley Quarters is likely the most interesting character in the book (all the more so for remaining a mystery), but I disagree with the notion that his narration to Dell of Remlinger’s past is either expository or inexplicable. Charley clearly has some affection for Dell (the exact nature of this affection is left opaque…). My impression was that Charley has been used by Remlinger in the past, and hopes to save Dell from the stunted and frankly bizarre life poor CQ suffers through–he clearly sees his own lost innocence in the boy, and frequently hints darkly to this effect. Yes, it’s a plot contrivance, but one that feels organic to me. At the end of the day, though, I don’t feel that the second half of the book gains much resonance from the first. Still, it’s better than most of the twee shit being published nowadays, and I’d rather reread Canada than have any further encounters with that insufferable Mr. Bascombe asshole.

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