Thursday, May 24, 2018
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Richard Ford's 'Canada' strangely upbeat in muted kind of way



Richard Ford is considered in some circles to be an elegant stylist, but a lightweight thinker as a novelist. The truth is that his easy grace as a writer often masks the challenging subjects he's exploring.

His Frank Bascombe trilogy -- The Sportswriter, Independence Day, and The Lay of the Land -- entertains readers with its likable hero, but Bascombe's struggles through the three decades covered in the books are lenses through which we can follow the struggles of the nation as well.

Ford has now written the most ambitious, and personal, novel of his career, again deceptively simple and carefully crafted, but with dark streaks of violence and cruelty that threaten to kill the soul of his hero. While the events of Canada's plot build to a horrific moment, they fail to defeat Dell Parsons, 15 when his world is turned upside down and all seems headed for tragedy.

Dell looks back on those events in the summer and fall of 1960 from the perspective of a 66-year-old. The adult quotes 19th-century art critic John Ruskin, who believed that "composition is the arrangement of unequal things," the idea that is key to this novel.

Survival then, is a balancing act, making choices between "unequal things" and picking the ones that sustain rather than destroy.

Canada returns Ford to the emptiness of the West, far from Bascombe's crowded New Jersey. In the stories of Rock Springs and the tough going of his short 1990 novel, Wildlife, the writer sees despair, brutality, and death as the consequences of life in an unforgiving place.

The book opens in Great Falls, Mont., also the locale of Wildlife, where Dell's father, Bev, and mother, Geneva, rob a bank and are soon arrested. Bev is a familiar Ford character, charming in a banal way, tiresomely upbeat -- and a criminal. Dell's mother is an ineffectual parent and spouse, a lousy combination for solid child-rearing.

"You'd think that to watch your parents be handcuffed, called bank robbers to their faces, and driven away to jail, and for you to be left behind might make you lose your mind," says the adult Dell. That didn't happen, "though of course life was changed forever."

Ford has written with sensitivity about fathers and sons, often how the former disappoints the latter. Independence Day contains a memorable scene when Bascombe, eager to salve the disappointment of his divorce for his son, concocts a road trip to the baseball Hall of Fame that ends in pain and embarrassment.

"I wish I had some ways to make you children happy now," Bev tells his kids when they visit him in jail. "What good can I do in here?"

None, but that truth renders his son inarticulate and lost. One father figure is toppled, then Dell encounters two more failures as male role models.

No one comes to shelter the Parsons twins after the arrest. There's a disturbing moment of physical intimacy between brother and sister -- the author is superb at understatement -- then she leaves. Dell is alone.

Part One ends with the sudden abduction by his mother's friend, Mildred Remlinger, who drives him to Canada and a strange new life with her brother, Arthur.

Ford breaks Canada cleanly into two distinct stories emphasizing how profoundly Dell's world has changed. In the second section of the novel, he lives alone surrounded by decaying, abandoned buildings, a symbol of his destroyed life.

Dell's human contacts are limited to Charlie Quarters and Remlinger, two of the most bizarre men in the Ford literature. Charlie is a Metis Canadian, a misshapen solitary man and apparent cross-dresser. Remlinger is an American with a Harvard education who manages a primitive hotel for hunting parties guided by Charlie. Neither offers Dell a spark of hope for his future.

His role is to work in the hotel and help Charlie with the hunts. Otherwise, he fends for himself without books, newspapers, school, or even a radio. This section of the novel begins to look like a Grimm Brothers fairy tale, a Hansel without Gretel as the solitary boy finds the courage to resist despair and imagine escape.

Things get worse for Dell before they improve, and they do, including a reunion with his sister years later. Canada is strangely upbeat in a muted kind of way, as Dell hits such a rock bottom that the wonder of his escape never reaches very high. But, that's not surprising considering the philosophy of Dell, and his creator:

The point is "... not to hunt too hard for hidden or opposite meanings ... 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."

I'm not sure if we need to encounter the bizarre experiences of Ford's hero to consider that approach to life, a sensible one but limiting as well.

The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Bob Hoover is a writer for the Post-Gazette.

Contact him at

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