For psychological and linguistic brilliance, Richard Ford remains hard to beatby Francine Prose / May 24, 2012 / Leave a comment
Published in June 2012 issue of Prospect Magazine
Richard Ford, who won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1996, is best known for mining the darkly faceted anthracite of the adult male psyche
By Richard Ford (Bloomsbury, £18.99)
More than 30 years after I first saw Terrence Malick’s film Badlands, I can still hear the childish sing-song of Sissy Spacek as the charismatic serial killer’s worshipful girlfriend. How wrenching her lilting rhythms became as she described their murder spree in the only language she knew: the diction of the fan magazine, the soap opera, and the tabloid.
Why should it seem so American, the voice of a child who has witnessed, or participated in, the crimes of the adults? Certainly, children everywhere have been scarred by the bad behaviour of grown-ups. But though other countries have their Jane Eyre and David Copperfield, their Young Törless and Jakob von Gunten, there is something about these stories narrated by innocent-bystander, collateral-damage kids that (at least to me) sets them squarely within a New World tradition: Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn; the knowing teens semi-sleepwalking through the pages of Tobias Wolff, Joy Williams, and Russell Banks. Or perhaps it’s less about the youths themselves than about the specifically American character of the felonies they observe—the differences between the modus operandi of Bonnie and Clyde, Jesse James, John Dillinger, and that of, let’s say, Jack the Ripper.
One such crime—and its hapless young witnesses—is at the heart of Richard Ford’s new novel, Canada. Ford, who won the Pulitzer prize for fiction in 1996, is best known and most frequently acclaimed for mining the darkly faceted anthracite of the adult male psyche. In his “Frank Bascombe trilogy”—Independence Day (1995), The Sportswriter (1986) and, The Lay of the Land (2006)—and in his most recent story collections, Women with Men (1998) and A Multitude of Sins (2002), Ford writes with unsparing and sometimes lacerating accuracy about the private griefs and public bad behaviour of men whose lives have not turned out in any of the ways they might have hoped or imagined. They are hopelessly confused about what women want—and about what they want. Befuddled, disconnected, they drift through their daily routines, seeking consolation in unhappy love affairs and unsatisfying jobs, trying to understand where and how exactly things took such a disheartening turn for the worse.