Richard Ford’s books have entranced me for quite a few years now, and although few in number, his Frank Bascombe series has said about as much as any writer can say about life itself, its twists and turns and unexpected deviations. Ford seems to understand people and their strange motivations as well as anyone, although fellow American Anne Tyler is in the same class of writers in her ability to make her readers say, “Yes, that’s how it is”.
Ford came to my attention with his first Frank Bascombe novel, The Sportswriter, in which Frank, a divorced newspaper sports-writer loses his son to a wasting disease and goes through an existential crisis. With his second Bascombe novel, Independence Day, Ford won the Pen/Faulkner prize and the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction – high praise indeed, but well-deserved in my view. The series ends with The Lay of the Land which I reviewed by saying,
“The charm of this novel, like its predecessors, is that nothing much happens. Frank is allowed to tell his story in his usual meandering way. A trip into town can give rise to pages of observations and reflections, somewhat in the way of W G Sebald, or even Marcel Proust. What makes this work is that Frank has a wondrously philosophical attitude to life, not one that insulates him from problems, but one which enables him to interpret them and live through them in an almost Buddhist way, where trouble is rarely confronted full on, but rather side-stepped and averted by Frank’s huge tolerance and patience”.
I am pleased to see that these three novels have been brought together in a fine Everyman edition, The Bascombe Novels, which does justice to their stature and significance in the canon of American writing.
A new novel arrived from Richard Ford this summer with the simple title, Canada with a paperback edition following 11 October 2012. At 432 pages, its a substantial read and bears little relationship to the Bascombe novels in subject matter. This is a long, meandering book about a 15 year old boy, Dell Parsons, who’s life is marked by disaster. Dell lives with his twin sister in Grand Falls, Minnesota. The twins’ parents are a mildly dysfunctional marriage marked by mutual disappointment the nature of which Ford captures succinctly in the thoughts of Dell’s mother,
The longer they stayed on, and the better they knew each other, the better she at least could see their mistake, and the more misguided their lives became—like a long proof in mathematics in which the first calculation is wrong, following which all other calculations move you further away from how things were when they made sense.
Dell’s father has left the Air Force after serving as a bombardier in the Second World War and is now trying to make his way in the world, but without much success. After some shady deals fall through he finds himself under pressure to pay off debts before he gets shot by his debtors and turns to bank robbery, an occupation he is not suited for. He involves his wife in the robbery not realising the potentially disastrous results for his two children in 1950’s Montana, a state with an under-developed social-services structure and cruel orphanages.
Ford describes family life in 1950’s America superbly. The home is not unhappy despite the tensions between the twins’ parents. The children occupy themselves in various ways with Dell taking up chess in a typically boyish way, endlessly rehearsing chess-openings on a plastic chess set laid out on his bed. His sister is taking an interest in boys and is moody in an early-teenage way and teases her brother unmercifully while still going around with him on walks around the neighbourhood.
The build up to the bank robbery is described superbly. We see the tension building up from Dell’s perspective but with adult insights for he tells the story in the first person many years after the event. The tragic outcome is inevitable, for Dell’s father is cunning only in an almost innocent way which is bound to result in his capture, while his mother, the more intelligent of the two seems to have been deluded by the thought of the large sums of money which would enable her to finally get out of her fatally-flawed marriage.
The second part of the book, and the one which gives the book its title follows Dell on his escape from the clutches of the authorities up to Saskatchewan north of the border, where he stays with a distant relative of a family friend. His life seems barely tolerable in this desolate landscape but he manages to make his way in an equally dysfunctional setting only to have another set of disasters come his way. It is only because Ford drops in references to Dell’s reasonably successful adult life that this section is at all bearable, because the misey of Dell’s life in Canada would otherwide be unbearable.
Canada is a slow-burning, meandering novel. Ford takes his time to get to the point, but he is a fine writer, whose digressions are as vital to the text as the story itself. The reader has to relax and slow down (read the Wikipedia article on slow reading to get the idea). There is no point in hurrying this book – there are pearls hidden among the text which it would be a shame to miss and it is apparent from other reviewers that unless you can enjoy well-crafted sentences for their own sake you are going to find this book unsatisfying.
For myself I luxuriated in Ford’s circuitous prose, with its insights and burgeoning wisdom. I was reminded slightly of Marilynne Robinson of Gilead fame, and also perhaps of David Gutterson (Snow Falling on Cedars), both of whom have a similarly quiet style, allowing any plot to unfold as secondary to the exploration of character and relationship which are at the heart of their books.
Richard Ford’s many fans will have been wondering for a long time what he would do next and Canada seems to have been a surprise for most of us. I am well-satisfied with Canada. Although I found a literary landscape where disappointment so often predominates, I am happy to say I found a week or so of deep satisfaction with this novel.