In Jim Jarmusch’s film Coffee and Cigarettes, Iggy Pop and Tom Waits discuss how great it’s been to quit smoking and then commence to light up; the joke is that it’s OK for them to have one now, because they don’t smoke. This deceptive notion that we can separate who we are from what we do is darkly dramatized in Canada, the quietly riveting new novel by prominent American writer Richard Ford.
At what point does a decent person bending the law become a criminal? The elusiveness of the threshold accounts for how Bev Parsons, an almost imperceptibly shifty Air Force veteran with charming Southern manners, raising an awkwardly fitted but functional household in the 1960s, comes to be imprisoned for bank robbery alongside his wife, casting his teenage children adrift. Bev knows that he’s not the kind of man to rob a bank. “This was, of course,” his son Dell reflects with characteristic pith, “his great misunderstanding.”
Dell’s implacably calm, lyrically plainspoken voice is our sole guide through the story, and his ambiguous insights as an adult never dispel the teenaged wonderment fogging the experience that forever broke his life in two. “First,” he begins, “I’ll tell about the robbery our parents committed. Then about the murders, which happened later.”
Each of these sentences looms over one of the book’s two main parts, which are followed by a short epilogue. The robbery is the unmovable center everything else revolves around, at least in Dell’s analysis. The murders, for us, are the engine of suspense.
The young Dell is curious, as though facts were a kind of armor. He’s especially interested in chess and bees. Chess comes to represent a view of the world as a competitive field where you make the most of limited options, and it is the interest that survives Dell’s coming-of-age. Bees fall to the wayside, as though their orderly cooperation no longer seemed like a useful metaphor for understanding the capricious, floundering world of adults.
In the first part of the novel, Dell tells of growing up in Montana with his gregarious father, twin sister Berner and eccentric mother Neeva, who “wrote poems in brown ink bought through the mail.” The family is strange in the way that actual families are strange—they’re some of the realest-seeming people in fiction—and their time and place springs up around them with vivid, hewn-down clarity.
The second part deals with Dell’s fugitive life in Canada, where he is turned over by a family friend to the dubious care of a furtive American dandy named Arthur Remlinger and his handyman Charley Quarters, a lurid figure. Without resorting to any melodrama, Ford lets us feel the full measure of Dell’s experience as a bright but not especially savvy boy who suddenly finds himself in a strange land with no one to teach him how to be.
Though Dell’s life could hardly be more different before and after the robbery, both sections of the book are elegantly parallel. The first is haunted by the lead-up to one crime, the second by the aftermath of two. In both parts, Dell learns by watching adults how easily one can slip beyond the pale and get stuck there, radiating consequences in every direction. But this is not a gothic tale of bitterness and recrimination, of monsters and overstated passions. It is explicitly not about loss—Dell says so directly. Instead, it’s about the inexorable progress of life, and how one wrong decision begets the next, “like a long proof in mathematics in which the first calculation is wrong.”
Canada is a distinctly conventional, even old-fashioned novel that makes it seem like postmodernism never happened. Ford has no interest in language games or the illusions of narrative convention. Instead, he breathes into the conventional until it throbs with new veracity and intelligence, imbuing small as well as large moments with the gripping drama of the real. The easy point to draw from this story would have been how life steadily boxes people in and moves them around until they no longer resemble themselves. But that’s not what Ford wants us to see.
Part of Canada’s tragic force derives from the sense that the story could have gone another way at many points—that the characters could have simply walked away if not for their rigid beliefs about themselves and the world, which bound them to hopeless courses of action more surely than their circumstances did. Ford's characters know that they're the chess pieces. Their tragedy is not realizing they're also the chess player’s hand.
Richard Ford appears at 7:30 p.m., Wednesday, June 13, at Quail Ridge Books in Raleigh.