For psychological and linguistic brilliance, Richard Ford remains hard to beatby Francine Prose / May 24, 2012 / Leave a comment
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.
Early in his career, Ford (whose first novel, A Piece of My Heart, appeared in 1976) was often associated—in the minds of readers and reviewers—with a group of American writers then known as “dirty realists.” Perhaps the best known of these authors was Raymond Carver, a close friend and colleague of Ford’s, who, like Ford, frequently chose his protagonists from the working and lower-middle classes.
But though Ford’s characters have, one might say, come up in the world over the course of the last decades, echoes of Carver still resonate in his work—most notably in the melancholy that pervades the sensibilities of so many of his heroes, and especially in their wrenching efforts to figure out what they did wrong, or where they went wrong, why their wives left them and how their destines wound up falling so far short of the happiness, however limited, that the future once seemed to promise.
What’s perhaps less obvious about Ford’s similarity to Carver is actually the most important aspect that their work shares in common: their close and exacting attention to word choice, to diction and language. In a Paris Review interview, Ford has said, “I’m always interested in words, and no matter what I’m doing—describing a character or a landscape or writing a line of dialogue—I’m moved, though not utterly commanded by an interest in the sound and rhythm of the words.”
In the past, I’ve found myself most strongly drawn to the books in which Ford focuses his calm, intelligent sympathies on the inner lives of boys and young men. So far my favourite has been his story collection, Rock Springs, and in particular the much-anthologised “Communist,” in which a 16 year-old boy named Les studies his mother’s trade union organiser boyfriend for clues to the mysteries of manhood.
Dell Parsons, the narrator of Canada, my new favourite Ford book, could be Les’s brother: introspective, observant, decent, coming of age in the American west during the same era. Dell is 15. It’s 1960. He likes school. His main interests—beekeeping and chess—suggest the presence of (or the desire for) an orderly, inquisitive mind. He loves his parents and his twin sister Berner but is so dwarfed by their oversized, forceful personalities that it’s hard for him to see beyond the edges of the shadows they cast on the visible landscape. And the fact that the family has moved around so much before coming to a full stop in Great Falls, Montana has left Dell with little talent for, or belief in, forging lasting connections with the world outside his front door.
The first hundred or so pages of the novel read like the verbal equivalent of a family portrait that the painter keeps returning to, adding new brushstrokes, rubbing out, trying to get an accurate or at least a recognisable likeness. Dell’s father, Bev, is what we have come to think of as a 1950s guy: handsome, self-confident, charming, a veteran who has failed to navigate the transition from the Air Force into civilian life. Neeva, Dell’s mother, could hardly be more different. Sceptical, cerebral, introverted, she “had worked in a bookstore, featured herself possibly as a bohemian and a poet, and had hoped someday to land a job as a studious, small-college instructor.” For Dell, the mystery of who his parents are is compounded by the even more confounding question of how they wound up together.
In my view, it’s not a “spoiler” to reveal a plot point that the author himself discloses in the opening paragraph. So here’s how Ford begins the novel, and we can take it from there:
“First, I’ll tell you about the robbery our parents committed. Then about the murders, which happened later. The robbery is the most important part, since it served to set my and my sister’s lives on the courses they eventually followed. Nothing would make complete sense without that being told first.
“Our parents were the least likely two people in the world to rob a bank. They weren’t strange people, not obviously criminals. No one would’ve thought they were destined to end up that way. They were just regular—although, of course, that kind of thinking became null and void the moment they did rob a bank.”
Dell spends a large part of the novel trying to understand how his “regular” parents could have become bank robbers. There are extenuating circumstances, including a debt incurred in a scheme to resell beef stolen by a group of local Indians—a rather low-level criminal activity gone seriously wrong. But Dell knows that the larger crime his parents commit doesn’t make sense; Ford seems to know it too, and his efforts to persuade his characters and himself and his readers that these two people could have committed this act range from the incisive to the excessive. “For some reason she was committed to robbing a bank—the only truly reliable explanation for which is the simplest one: people do rob banks. If this seems illogical, then you are still judging events from the point of view of someone who’s not robbing a bank and never would because he knows it’s crazy.”
Just as it begins to seem wearing, or like a flaw in the novel, just as we find ourselves longing to tell Dell, and Ford, “Enough! We believe you! People do strange things!” our doubts are blown away by a series of scenes so powerful that our misgivings seem beside the point. Because almost without our being aware, Ford has managed to make us honorary or vicarious members of the Parsons family, to implicate and involve us so deeply in their missteps and misfortunes that the scene of Neeva and Bev’s arrest is almost unbearably painful. It’s as if we truly are watching it through the eyes of the child who is seeing something terrible and irreversible happen to the parents he loves.
“‘I have two children here,’ our mother said to the policeman, who’d begun moving her awkwardly around the dining room table, her hands behind her. Because she was small, her arms didn’t reach easily around her back. It is not simple to describe what I saw. The big policeman’s cigar odour was all inside the room, as if he’d been smoking. He was breathing stiffly. My mother’s feet didn’t move willingly, but she didn’t struggle or say anything other than that she had two children. Her eyes became fixed in front of her—not on me—as if what she was doing was difficult to perform.”
I never imagined I’d find myself comparing Richard Ford’s work to The Man Who Loved Children, the brilliant and immensely peculiar novel of domestic mayhem by the Australian writer, Christina Stead. But when the Parsons’ bubble is finally burst and the police arrive on the scene, I kept thinking of a scene in the Stead novel. There, it’s the daughter’s teacher through whose eyes we suddenly see the wildly dysfunctional family that, in the course of reading the novel, we have come to view as normal—the way children see their families, as Dell does, as “regular.” It’s a shocking and wounding shift in perspective, and we are likewise shocked and wounded by the events that transpire after Bev and Neeva are apprehended.
The second half of Canada contains a series of plot turns that one would hate to ruin for the reader. Perhaps it’s enough to say that their unwanted new freedom provokes, in Dell and Berner, a disturbing volley of responses.
Berner runs away, and Dell is smuggled across the border to Canada: a rescue intended to save him from being made a ward of the state. In Saskatchewan, he rather rapidly discovers that rescue is a relative term; it’s unclear whether his new situation is better or worse than what would have befallen him had he been left to the mercies of the authorities in Montana. Watched over by the unsavoury and vaguely threatening Charley Quarters, one of those renegade, lipstick-wearing frontier weirdos we’re always happier to meet in fiction than in real life, he is put to work at a seedy hotel for itinerant workers and goose hunters from the States. There, he falls under the spell of the hotel owner, Arthur Remlinger, one of the inevitably disappointing father substitutes who appear with some regularity in Ford’s fiction.
In fact Arthur Remlinger is the dark mirror image of Bev Parsons: mysterious, secretive, mercurial, ultimately criminal. That is to say, male. Like Bev, Remlinger has strong political opinions, considerably to the right of Bev’s; views that—in Remlinger’s case—have turned him into a fugitive, fleeing a crime that, we suspect, will catch up with him sooner or later.
As Dell moves deeper into Remlinger’s orbit, and as we approach the two murders mentioned in the book’s opening paragraph, Dell—and Ford—provides us with a series of illuminating reflections on the relationship between fathers (biological or quasi-adoptive) and their sons: “He needed me to be his ‘special son’—though only for a moment, since he knew what bad things were coming to him. He needed me to do what sons do for their fathers: bear witness that they’re substantial, that they’re not hollow, not ringing absences. That they count for something when little else seems to.”
A final section, which features a reunion between Berner and Dell is more confirming than surprising. It hasn’t been hard to predict which of the twin siblings would make it through, against all odds, and which would be less fortunate. But this reflective, elegiac conclusion reminds us of a theme that has repeatedly surfaced in Ford’s work, an observation that Canada has so well demonstrated, and what we have ourselves observed: that buried inside every adult is the baffled child who has struggled to solve the riddle of what it means to make one’s own way through a confusing, inhospitable, and even criminal world.