Near the end of Canada (Ecco, 432 pp., $27.99), the new novel by Richard Ford, the narrator suggests a few literary parallels to the story he’s just finished telling. It’s quite a crib note:
[These books] to me seem secretly about my young life—The Heart of Darkness, The Great Gatsby, The Sheltering Sky, The Nick Adams Stories, The Mayor of Casterbridge. A mission into the void. Abandonment. A figure, possibly mysterious, but finally not…
Only someone fairly certain of his bearings would presume to insert himself into the middle of that lineup. Hemingway, Hardy, Fitzgerald, Conrad and Bowles—and Ford. It is unthinkable that a first-time novelist, for example, would risk placing himself (in print) alongside even one of them. But Mr. Ford, who has written seven novels and won a Pulitzer prize, is a grandee—some would say a great. Can he pull it off? That his immodesty merely makes you frown (that it doesn’t make you send his book flapping to the floor) is a measure of Canada’s success. The new novel isn’t Conrad, but who cares? It’s good enough to rise above its pretensions to greatness.
Canada takes place in 1960. It describes a spate of “very bad things” that swamps a 15-year-old boy living in Montana as the adult version of that boy broods on them. You could call it a coming-of-age story, but you could equally call it a horror story, and perhaps that’s the point. “It was the event of our lives, wasn’t it?” the narrator’s sister reflects. “A great big fuck-up, with everything piled on top.” I suppose you would have to call Canada an ugly story. It contains a stickup, a suicide, a double-homicide and a drunken night of incest, and its locales are unvaryingly unlovely. The bulk of the action takes place in the “hell-hole” of Great Falls, Mont., and a “terrible shack” in the Canadian province of Saskatchewan (“the void”). They are landscapes of inexorable nullity, meant to put one in mind of The Sheltering Sky—though the kooky names of the key characters do it first. Dell Parsons, the narrator, has a fraternal twin sister named Berner. Their parents are Beverly and Neeva. “Bev,” surprisingly, is the father.
It is this unhappy couple who kicks off the great big fuck-up. Having incurred “a trivial debt … to a small group of ineffectual Indians,” Bev and Neeva decide to rob a bank in North Dakota. The results are predictably dismal; the desperate klutzes of a film like Fargo are not far away. “You two don’t seem like bank robbers,” notes the policeman who arrests them a few days later. “You look like people who’d work in a grocery store.” Soon the Parson parents are in prison and their twins have hit the road. Berner goes to San Francisco; Dell heads north, and it is his fate that, by default, we follow, as a family friend drives him over the Canadian border and into the lair of Arthur Remlinger, an American hotelier living in exile on the Canadian prairie. Remlinger is stylish like Jay Gatsby and psychopathic like Kurtz. His life is a powder keg of lies. Dell is first his drudge, then his mentee, then his patsy. “To say something’s founded on a lie isn’t really alleging much,” Remlinger tells him. “I’m much more interested in how those lies hold up.” Canada is mostly about lies that break down.
The novel is a small-time tragedy that does a lot of nodding at big names. As well as the lessons he has taken from the many greats he explicitly cites, Mr. Ford quotes from Yeats, Ecclesiastes and Rimbaud, and “William Maxwell’s presence will be obvious to any reader,” as he notes in the “Acknowledgments.” Yet for all its loans and allusions, Canada is very much a novel by Richard Ford. Great Falls, where Canada begins, is the closest thing Mr. Ford has to home turf; it provides the setting for many of his finest short stories, as well as his 1990 novel, Wildlife. Canada’s themes will be similarly resonant to readers familiar with Mr. Ford’s oeuvre. “How amazingly far normalcy extends,” Dell notes as he imagines his parents passing the time on their doomed drive to North Dakota. Later, having acquired a more dramatic proof of this point, Dell will urge us: “Think how close evil is to the normal goings-on that have nothing to do with evil. Through all these memorable events, normal life was what I was seeking to preserve for myself.”
The emptiness just beyond the edge of normal American life has always been the great subject of Mr. Ford’s fiction. “The more normal the April day the better for me,” thinks Frank Bascombe, the protagonist of the Bascombe Trilogy. Frank is Mr. Ford’s most famous character (the second Bascombe novel, Independence Day, won the Pulitzer). He is a writer of short stories who gives it up to be a sportswriter, a trade he subsequently drops to sell real estate. Frank’s life has been willfully scaled down, and so too his ambitions: “to participate briefly in the lives of others at a low level” is all he wants from a career. He is a deep thinker who sticks to small talk, a romantic who has become besotted with suburbia. Of course, it’ll never work out. He gets “dreamy” at crucial moments, he can’t keep a woman close, and garrulous strangers pick on him with their sob stories. Frank wouldn’t want to be a novelist’s good character, but usually he can’t help it.
Canada’s hero, Dell, is like that: if he’s not a dull kid, it’s not for lack of trying. As his world goes to pieces, his aim monotonously remains “to find a way to be normal.” One difference between Frank and Dell is that Frank’s abnormality is a matter of character, whereas Dell’s is imposed by circumstance. This manifests itself in Mr. Ford’s prose style. Not much happens in the Bascombe books. They are adventures of the inner life, and what drama they possess tends to rise and fall on whether Frank thinks his way in or out of a good mood. This leads to self-consciously loopy prose. The idea, presumably, is to suggest a man who spends an unhealthy amount of time in his head. He calls a bedroom a “nuptial sanctum,” and death a “wormy stupor”; “the gradual numbly-crumbly toward the end stripe” probably means something like existence.
Though the Bascombe novels are long, they confine themselves to short spans of time and move slowly, a formula that affords great scope to their hero’s habit of dizzy abstraction. Horrible things actually do happen in Canada, though, and Mr. Ford’s tics as a stylist are accordingly muted. The results are gratifyingly spare. “The jail was a place you smelled more than anything else,” Dell thinks at one point. It’s a sharp apprehension of an alien environment, vivid on its own—something a narrator like Frank Bascombe might have fussed the energy from.
Of course, fuss isn’t all bad, and Canada’s ultimately no less thoughtful than any of the Bascombe books. “To me, it’s the edging closer to the point of no return that’s fascinating,” Dell thinks, brooding on the outcome of his parents. He proves a storyteller much preoccupied with pinning down his points of no return—the country of Canada (“Indistinguishable. Same air. But different”) has a symbolic function here—and one thing he does is catalog the final times he does anything. It’s a practice that is shocking at times (“I never saw [Dad] again”) and at others endearingly neurotic: “We left the café,” Dell notes of one unremarkable Saskatchewan diner. “I was never there again.” The gloomy vigilance of an unhappy child, one of its effects is to make an adult reader wonder if he’ll ever return to the page on which he read about it. Somehow, the thought would be less morbid if the pages weren’t numbered. Surely Frank Bascombe, the dreamer, would agree. As Paul Bowles put it, “It’s that terrible precision that we hate so much.”