I am always nervous of massive tomes as, with few exceptions, they turn out to have needed a good editor and blue pencil. However, with Richard Ford's new book, Canada, four hundred pages just weren't enough. I wanted more! This is Ford at his best and if it at times recalls The Sportswriter, it also surpasses it in the beauty of his language, the laconic style of narration and authenticity.
The story is told in three parts with its opening lines being already as widely quoted as Tale of Two Cities, viz: 'First I'll tell about the robbery our parents committed. Then about the murders, which happened later.' He then goes on 'The robbery is the more important part, since it served to set my and my sister's lives on the courses they eventually followed'. It is told by the now retired English teacher, Dell Parsons, and recounts his life with his twin sister, Berner, as fifteen year olds, living in Great Falls, Montana, a small town concerned mainly with 'cows and wheat' as his mother Neeva describes it. Great Falls was where the family settled following his father Bev's retirement from the airforce but where Neeva feels alienated and superior and thinks that if her children fitted in 'it would only increase the chance [they'd] end up right where they were'. Neeva teaches fifth class in a neighbouring town, is rather bohemian and intense, a poet with a penchant for French poetry. Bev is a handsome extrovert who took up car selling and before long got involved in a nefarious scheme selling meat to the army. Dell likes Great Falls and anticipates with pleasure starting High School in the fall, joining the chess club and learning more about bees while coping phlegmatically with the peculiarities of his own family life.
Ford recounts his story in a low key leisurely fashion but because every sentence literally is so wonderfully well crafted it makes riveting reading and we almost fall into the robbery the parents commit with as little foresight as they do and which is inevitably doomed to failure. The second part of the book then deals with the fall out from the robbery, Berner running away and Dell being spirited away by Mildred, a friend of his mother's, to live with Arthur Remlinger in the small town of Fort Royal, Saskatchewan, in Canada. There he is given a small shack outside of town in which to live and employed in Arthur's hotel doing odd jobs. School is a forgotten dream. Arthur is a mysterious character and Dell thinks that 'there must be an enterprise attached to him, a significance that was hidden from view and wished to stay hidden and that made him not predictable or ordinary', a remarkably astute observation from a fifteen year old. Within months, the murders happen - that we were warned about on page 1 and Dell is once again spirited away to Winnipeg of which we hear nothing.
The third section then is the current life of Dell, now retired, and his reunion with his sister whom life has not treated well. Thinking back on his life teaching, Dell remarks on the fundamentals he tried to teach his students, 'to think of their existence on the planet not as just a catalog of random events endlessly unspooling, but as a life - both abstract and finite' and this in so many ways is how he has been able to make sense of his own life. It seems to be something close to Ford who asks us 'not to hunt too hard for hidden or opposite meanings ... but to look as much as possible straight at the things [you] can see in broad daylight. In the process of articulating to yourself the things you see, you'll always pretty well make sense and learn to accept the world'. And again at the very end of the book, he says 'I believe in what you see being most of what there is ... so, while significance weighs heavy, that's the most it does. Hidden meaning is all but absent'.
Is he asking us not to look for hidden meaning in this important and deceptively deep book or is he articulating a philosophy of life? Either way, it is a remarkably sanguine acceptance of being in the world.