Canada, By Richard Ford

In the lonely wilderness of America, the dreams of childhood, and of parenthood, come to grief.

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

'There is always one moment in childhood when the door opens and lets the future in". That celebrated quote may have been written by a profoundly English novelist, Graham Greene, but it could also serve as an epigraph to an entire sector of American fiction – beginning with Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn – in which childhood is portrayed as that juncture in life when the mythic is inevitably corrupted by the world's harsher realities.

As we are a nation in thrall to its own grandiose self-deceptions (the biggest one that we are God's Preferred Terrain), it is not surprising that the proverbial loss of innocence is one of the larger overriding themes of our national literature. When you cling to myths as a way of dodging the actual heart of the matter, the moment when the lie is revealed is the moment when devastation ensues.

Richard Ford's arresting new novel is – on one level – an intriguing variation on this American Childhood Gets Derailed theme. We are in the middle of the last century – that monochromatically conformist era of middle-class expansion and social stasis presided over by Dwight D Eisenhower. It was a moment when every US male had the alleged ability to carve out a well-upholstered existence for his family; to be the exemplary post-war provider.

Unless, of course, you happen to be Bev Parsons. He's a Southern boy from that most redneck corner of Dixie, Alabama; charming, superficially hyper-positive, always trying to latch on to the next get-rich-quick scheme. His wife, Neeva, is from European emigré stock (and latterly the Pacific Northwest) and could not be more tonally different from her good-ol'-boy husband. She's Jewish, bookish, withdrawn. And it is very clear to her twin children, daughter Berner and son Dell, that their parents' marriage is a troubled one.

Their father's fortunes as a car salesman are on the skids. In that great American tradition of always heading out of town to a new destination when financial failure hits, the family ends up amid the lonely epic grandeur of Montana – Great Falls, just on the edge of the Rockies. Then an illegal fast-buck scheme involving pilfered meat goes seriously wrong and leaves Bev seriously in debt to his Native American fellow-schemers. Threats of bodily harm are rendered. Money must be found. Bev and Neeva decide there is only one way out: larceny. Specifically: robbing a bank. They choose a bank in a small town in that most desolate of American terrains, North Dakota.

Of course, they are eventually caught. Of course, they are hauled off to jail. Berner vanishes for points further west to meet her boyfriend. And before Dell can be made a ward of the state, his aunt Mildred transports him into the even more isolated landscape that is Saskatchewan. Once in Canada, events turn even stranger, as Mildred tosses Dell into the clutches of her brother Arthur, who runs a hotel in a lonely corner of the Great Canadian Nowhere.

As Dell finds himself in a Dickensian-on-the-Prairies world of hard labour and profound isolation, details emerge about Arthur - a man whose presence in Canada has its antecedents in malfeasance south of the border. Before the novel is finished, Dell is going to bear witness to even more malfeasance.

At first Canada is a puzzling book, especially as Dell the 15-year-old narrator has a habit of repeating Blinding Glimpses of the Obvious (especially when it comes to his parents the bank robbers) a little too often. But then, as this highly original voice begins to take hold, you find yourself drawn into Ford's uneasy, ever-skewed, narrative world. It's a world which speaks volumes about the reclusiveness and violence at the heart of the American experience – which, like the solitary terrain, engulfs those who try to find a sense of self or meaning amid its hard-scrabble vacuity.

Audacious in its narrative technique (observe Ford's frequent use of short chapters, his varied pacing, the way he never rushes any plot points, and allows the story to unfold in its own enigmatic way), Canada both grips and haunts. Yet it does so by frequently playing against narrative expectations and maintaining an elliptical tone that still keeps you hooked. Ford makes you ponder so deeply the way that none of us can fathom life's inherent strangeness. Which is why everyone is always such a profound mystery... though never as mysterious or unfathomable as oneself.

Douglas Kennedy's tenth novel, 'The Moment', is now an Arrow paperback. His 'Five Days' will be published by Hutchinson next year