On its book jacket, Richard Ford’s Canada promises a character named Arthur Remlinger who is “an enigmatic and charismatic American whose cool reserve masks a dark and violent nature” – and let me tell you: I have never been more eager to encounter a person of this description than I was during the first three hundred pages of this book. I fought the urge to skim paragraphs. I flipped ahead to see how many pages I had to read through before his name started to appear. I really, really wanted the protagonist to meet this dark and violent American.
Translation: this book is S L O W. I would have been happy for any catastrophe to shake things up: an earthquake, some wild sex, the arrival of the king and the duke from Huck Finn for an encore performance of their naked rainbow-striped Shakespeare routine. And this is saying something for a novel whose first half includes both incest and a bank robbery.
Now. I am not enough of a cretin to think that all novels need to be fast-paced and plot driven. Richard Ford is a master novelist; his characters are well drawn (some more than others, though: the narrator’s father and sister Berner are wonderfully rich, round, and individualized, his mother less so) and at times his evocation of setting is exquisite. But the narrative voice is dull and repetitive, and if it weren’t for the promise of the charismatic but violent American, I would have had trouble finding reasons to read all the way to the end.
The premise of the novel is this: Fifteen year-old Dell Parsons and his twin sister Berner have grown up moving with their parents from one Air Force base to another before finally settling in Great Falls, Montana, where their father, Bev, resigns from the Air Force after being demoted for his participation in a moneymaking scheme involving the selling of poached meat to the base dining facility. Loose and adrift in the wake of his military career, Bev Parsons drifts through a series of jobs selling cars, eventually deciding to replicate his illegal-meat scam in the civilian world through a connection with the Great Northern Railway. Bev serves as middleman, arranging for local Indians to poach and deliver the meat to a head waiter working for the railway. This scheme goes well for a while until the railroad employee accuses the Indians of delivering spoiled beef. As the middleman and the one who delivers payment for the meat, Bev ends up owing the Indians two thousand dollars. He hatches a plan to rob a bank in nearby North Dakota and enlists his nondescript wife (who is far more enigmatic than Arthur Remlinger, by the way) to drive the getaway car. The couple is caught, of course, and in attempts to avoid being taken into custody by the state, Berner runs away and Dell is spirited to Canada by a friend of his mother’s, who takes him to live with Arthur Remlinger, the promised violent American.
One of the many thematic elements Ford explores in this novel is identity. What is the difference, Dell wonders, between robbing a bank and being a bank robber? Does action determine identity? Are his parents now “bank robbers” forever as a result of their one felonious act? On the other hand – Dell ponders as he remembers that his father has long been fascinated by Bonnie and Clyde – is it possible that his father has always been a bank robber? Is there something inherent in him that has set him on a trajectory toward criminality since birth? “Intention to be a criminal must weigh in these things… To Bev Parsons, in the state of mind he’d descended to, there was something so necessary and also unexceptional about the undertaking that there couldn’t have been any grounds for objecting – which says something not good about him, I know” (70). Dell goes on to conclude that our image of ourselves is ultimately the determining factor in identity – and certainly Bev Parsons remains loyal to his image of himself as an entrepreneur, a devoted father and provider, and man of the world.
One of the advantages of this novel’s painfully slow narration is the way the reader gets to experience for herself Dell’s gradual recognition of his father’s defective perception of reality. Bev does not immediately appear to be insane, sociopathic, or criminal: he generally treats Dell and Berner well and her a generally solid career in the Air Force until his involvement in the scheme involving the illegal meat – which, according to Dell, is a scheme that he “inherited” from the person who previously held his post. In the novel’s second half, Dell goes through a parallel experience in which he is forced to examine the identity of Arthur Remlinger, who may once have unintentionally killed a man in what was intended to be a protest bombing (if true, does that make him a murderer? Is he still a murderer all these years later?) and who engages in disturbing behaviors like driving directly into a flock of pheasants on the highway, killing several, instead of braking or swerving (does that make him a murderer? Does a willingness to kill birds in cold blood automatically translate into a casual disregard for human life?)
This novel is richly textured. A secondary character – the mocking, advice-giving, trailer-living, makeup-wearing half-Indian Charley Quarters – is endlessly fascinating, and while his presence provides a certain amount of information for Dell on the character of Arthur Remlinger, ultimately he is in the novel for no reason except to introduce an air of mystery and trepidation to the novel’s second half. He is the equivalent to the background music that starts to play every time the shark is about to appear in Jaws – and he is also a warning, I think, of what Dell could become if he remains in Remlinger’s company too long. Similarly, Dell’s sister Berner is expertly drawn and adds a similar level of strangeness to the novel’s first half. Ford often does not deliver on the suspense he builds around certain characters – nothing bad happens to Berner at the hands of her creepy boyfriend Rudy or to Dell at the hands of Charley Quarters – but in general I find this narrative sleight-of-hand technique effective: it reminds us of how much danger Dell and Berner are constantly in, even when this danger does not ultimately harm them.
Ultimately, the novel’s primary flaw – its unnecessarily slow pace – is a function of its point of view. Dell narrates the novel from the perspective of fifty years after the primary events of the novel, when he is in his mid-sixties and getting ready to retire from a teaching career in Canada (during the novel’s final chapters that deal with this period of his life – I couldn’t help think that Ford had lifted the adult John Wheelwright straight out of Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany and went so far as to visualize Dell at the blackboard in his classroom, pointing with a missing trigger finger). Using the first person to tell stories about children is notoriously difficult to do well. Any novel that does so must rely heavily on dramatic irony – on the unstated presence of facts and details that the reader must interpret without the assistance of the naïve narrator. Authors have good reason to avoid this challenging technique; however, I think it would have been the right point of view for this narrative, and Ford certainly has the skill to pull it off well. The adult Dell is mournful and meandering in telling the story of how his childhood went wrong and insists on looping back obsessively over each detail (phrases like “As I’ve already said…” are commonplace). This is entirely plausible on a psychological level, but it makes for a discursive and inefficient story. The slow pace has a few advantages, but not enough.
Oddly enough, the part of the novel that I enjoyed the most – the 25-page Part III that serves as an epilogue to the novel – is also the one that I think is structurally unnecessary to the novel. In these final chapters, Dell reunites with Berner shortly before his retirement from teaching and her death. They remain warm and caring for one another in spite of their long separation. This portion of the novel is readable and compelling specifically because it possesses the immediacy that the bulk of the novel lacks. It was in these final pages that I became sure of my initial observation that the novel should be told without the fifty-year lapse between the events and their narration.
Canada is an example of a novel that is skillfully written without making for compelling reading. To be honest, Arthur Remlinger aside, the primary reason I was driven to keep reading was the fact that I knew I would be reviewing the book, and I wanted to keep track of details to support my reactions. If I didn’t have this blog to answer to, I’m not sure if even the violent American could have kept me interested.