Review of “Canada”
Harper Collins, 2012
The Larger View
Richard Ford’s “Canada” is a novel about memory. It is about failed relationships. It is about rites of passage. It is about compromises. It is about mortality. It is about defeat. It is about survival. It is about our need for psychological purges by performing acts of self-destructive daring or, if we are desperate, killing ourselves or others to wipe our slates clean of the mistakes of our past.
It is a novel about missed chances, individual choices, and the landscapes we end up in, not always by choice. It is a story about running away and, finally, about settling down. At the core of all our journeys, according to Dell Parsons, the sixty-three year old narrator, are the attempts: “We try, as my sister said. We try. All of us. We try.”
Scanning The Plot
Don’t misunderstand me. “Canada” does have a plot. Actions do happen in sequential order, even though the narrator is looking back at the events of his adolescence in Montana and Saskatchewan. By the end of the novel, Dell brings us up to the present as a retired English teacher living in Windsor, Ontario.
Dell sometimes interrupts the sequential order of the events as he occasionally tips his story-telling hand by telling us beforehand that his parents are going to rob a bank (“FIRST, I’LL TELL ABOUT THE ROBBERY OUR PARENTS COMMITTED” is the first line of the novel, all in caps, like a Huckleberry-Finn-Twitter shout-out).
We also learn, before the events actually happen, that Dell’s mother is going to hang herself in a North Dakota prison and that his Canadian guardian is going to commit two cold acts of murder in order to destroy any incriminating evidence of his past.
Parents, A Study in Contrasts
Dell Parsons, the narrator of the novel, and the central character, is the son of Bev and Neeva Parsons and the twin brother of Berner.
The father is a former World-War II bombardier, an affable six-foot, non-stop talker from Alabama, a man of “high-flying spirits” who “laughed, told jokes, teased people,” and a guy who is always looking for a way to make a fast buck. He takes his supply-officer’s discharge from the Air Force in Glens Falls, Montana, after losing his captain’s rank because of an undercover middle-man scheme to sell beef to the officers’ club. The beef was sold by the Cree Indians who killed Hereford cows they stole from the local ranchers.
After Bev’s discharge, he sells automobiles and gets involved in some minor real estate deals. But he continues as a middle-man for the Cree by selling the stolen beef to the Great Northern Railway. The dining-car senior-staffer, Digby, claims that one of the beef shipments was rancid and refuses to pay for the beef. The Cree, eventually, up the price of the failed sale to two-thousand dollars.
It is at this point that Bev convinces his reluctant wife to rob a bank in North Dakota.
Ford is at his brilliant best when he carefully portrays Bev’s Jewish wife, Neeva (short for Geneva). She is a “barely five foot” brooding, depressive former college bohemian and poet who never quite adapts to the fast-paced, itinerant world of her husband (After stints in Mississippi and Michigan, the family ends up in Great Falls, Montana). She writes poetry, teaches part-time, and reads Flaubert and Stendhal. We are told by Dell about Geneva that “most of familiar life was worthy only of her disdain.”
It strains all credibility to believe that these two husband-and-wife characters, who become “mere satellites of each other,” would somehow agree to rob a bank. The robbery, however, becomes a kind of cathartic, Bonny-and-Clyde moment for both the characters, fulfilling their distinct dark destinies (Bev admits to his son that he thought about robbing a bank when the family was in Mississippi; Geneva seems to steep herself in a world of brooding fatalism and 19th century naturalistic novels, so it is not surprising that, even in her reluctance, she chooses the darkest psychological road she can find, a road that has a shoulder of short-lived energy in the actual robbery—edging “closer to the point of no return,” Dell tells us. Her suicide, of course, has all of its 19th century analogues in the novels of Flaubert and Stendhal.)
The Second Story Line
The second story-line picks up after the fifteen-year old Dell is taken to Saskatchewan by a school nurse at the request of Dell’s mother. Berner, his sister, manages to slip away on her own (When he is retired from teaching, Dell will have his final tryst with his sister at a Twin Cities Appelby’s in Minnesota just before she dies of cancer.)
Arthur Remlinger, the son of the school nurse, becomes the informal guardian of Dell but leaves most of the responsibility to Charley Quarters, an eccentric work-hand. Remlinger, himself, is another US emigré who fled to the anonymous landscape of Saskatchewan to escape the repercussions of having left a bomb in a Detroit union hall. (A union Vice-President inadvertently returns to the hall and is killed when the bomb detonates.)
Remlinger’s motive for being Dell’s guardian, we find out from Charley, is to give his life an air of respectability—which he believes will work to his advantage when a retired policeman and relative of the killed union rep come to the small Saskatchewan town to hear Remlinger’s side of the story.
Remlinger, of course, makes his final decision to kill both of them. Dell and Charlie help bury the bodies. And Dell leaves Fort Royal on a bus to Winnipeg to stay with a relative of Remlinger’s artist girlfriend.
At the end of the novel, the older Dell tells us that he is retiring from his teaching position; he then travels to meet his sister for the last time.
Psychological and Physical Landscapes
The plot of “Canada” is obviously without frenzied side-shows. Everything seems to have a natural unfolding of events and Ford doesn’t get sidetracked by elaborate inside narratives. Ford’s brilliance in this work is not so much found in the plot, however, but in his ability to catch the physical and psychological landscapes of the environment and his characters.
In the austere surroundings of Great Falls, Montana, Dell is able to find some adolescent past-times in his love of bees and chess, even though he is precociously conscious of his parents’ odd relationship, the self-destructive decision of his father to rob a bank, his mother’s dark emotional withdrawals and his father’s inability to fathom the consequences of any of his actions on the family.
As a retired English teacher looking back at his past, he never misses the commonplace details of his past. He can still hear the bell of the Lutheran church near their Glenns-Falls-Montana house or see a wedding at the church or observe some of the church members curiously watching the police come to the house and take his parents in the police car after the robbery. The church becomes a kind of grounding of normalcy in the midst of all the dark craziness of his own nuclear family.
And he is able to fully identify the bizarre sense of compatible relief his parents have after the robbery in spite of their refusal to believe that, without masks, they won’t be identified (Dell’s father convinces himself that the bank workers will be totally distracted by his gun to notice what he or his wife look like).
An Eye For Detail and the Gothic Shadow
Dell is more than just a chronicler; he has a chilling sense of detail as he recalls the empty house when his sister and he are left alone. In a gothic scene of family obligation, both he and Berner walk to the local jail to visit their parents and then, in a final act of bonding, have sex with each other before their eventual separation when Berner decides not to go to Saskatchewan with Dell.
Ford’s Montana and Saskatchewan’s worlds have much in common. They are Willa-Cather-like spaces of small town frontiers that hide the gothic, unsettling sides of human nature—Berner’s inability to have long-lasting relationships, the penchant of Charlie Quarters to wear lipstick; the failed anti-union anarchist and intellectual, Arthur Remlinger; the Nighthawk-school-of-art painter, Florence LaBlanc, Remlinger’s girlfriend; and the incompatible mix of Dell’s parents—one of whom is an affable con-artist, the other a chronic depressive.
When I think about this novel, I think of American films like Paris, Texas and Last Picture Show, both of which unwrap the package of idyllic small town life in America. Like these two films, Ford catches the “shadow” that lies beneath the surface glimmer of contentedness in the frontiers of America and the plains of Canada.
And it’s just a damn good read