Richard Ford is best known for his novel The Sportswriter, his 1985 story of a failed novelist turned sportswriter who is faced with the deep crisis of a dead son. Its sequel – Independence Day (1995) won the Pulitzer Prize. Ford is also a noted short story writer and has been seen as being part of the Dirty Realism school of writing along with such writers as Raymond Carver, Cormac McCarthy, Carson McCullers and of course the great Charles Bukowski.
Not having even read a single word of Ford’s writing previously, I came to Canada as a total Ford novice, absolutely free from any knowledge or opinion. My first impression was that Ford is a writer of nuance and craft, taking his time to build the plot and reveal his characters. At first I appreciated this and warmed to the fifteen year old Dell Parsons, who narrates the novel retrospectively from the vantage point of retirement. Dell lives with his twin sister, Berner and their parents Bev (the broad shouldered ex-airman) and the frustrated Jewish would be intellectual Neeva. It’s a sad grey world of isolation and confusion for Dell and Berner and it slowly becomes apparent that there is a deep psychological element to Canada that is perhaps more evident in hindsight. The motivations of Dell’s parents are murky at best, even to Dell himself, who comes across as a bewildered innocent.
With a narrative pace bordering on catatonic Dell recounts his dysfunctional family life and the events that lead up to his parents robbing a bank. During this long first part Ford’s measured and meticulous style becomes repetitive and Dell’s repeated ruminations about the psychology of his parents decision making leading up to the robbery becomes tedious. When the robbery occurs it’s an anticlimax and the inevitable consequences take forever to arrive; squandering any tension generated by events leading up to Dell’s parents arrest. I’m giving nothing away here due to the fact that nearly every major event in Canada is revealed well in advance (from the first line!), which turns out to be a fatal flaw.
The second part finds Dell deposited in a small town in Canada by a friend of Neeva to avoid the long reach of the authorities. Initially the shift to Canada brings the novel alive, particularly when Dell meets the louche Charley Quarters. Charley provides a much-needed presence, with his seedy manner, penchant for lipstick, rouge and poetry. Dell finds himself marginalized, living in an overflow shack away from the main hotel in a one-horse town that survives due to geese hunters visiting from America. Suddenly the reader’s interest is revived and the pathos of Dell’s situation hits home. But once again any tension generated is wasted when the dodgy character of hotelier Arthur Remlinger comes to the fore, with his oblique character traits that fascinate Dell so much and his semi-interesting back-story as a political radical. There is a climax of sorts, when Remlinger has to deal with his past catching up with him, but its execution is fumbled and it merely becomes just another event witnessed at a remove.
A strange ambivalence permeates this novel; it’s difficult to connect with the characters lives due to Ford’s ponderous style and Dell’s monochrome recollections. There are long sections that you could only describe as being dull, which is frustrating because there is a sense of something deeper lurking there, something that speaks of the dark vagaries of human existence. Dell is fascinated with chess and bee keeping, two seemingly disparate pastimes which actually represent his subconscious need for order in his life which is at the mercy of the capriciousness of wayward adults. If the prose had been more vital and there had been more interest generated by the tension of not knowing what was going to come next then such deeper aspects of Canada would have far more import. Ford can certainly write, as his reputation suggests, however the novel is a disappointment, which is a shame really.