Check it Out: Richard Ford’s “Canada”

By Byron Spooner

I was so excited by the new Richard Ford that I suddenly found myself in the grip of an irresistible and irrational urge to clean out my bookshelves.  It came over me suddenly on the Saturday morning I finished the book.  I handed the book to my wife so she could start it, got out of bed and started pawing through my collection. Sort of like Richard Dreyfuss mounding his mashed potatoes in “Close Encounters” only without all the crying and Terry Garr.

I went through not just my literature collection but my natural history and music as well, inexplicably tossing books into grocery bags with a manic abandon.  I left books lying and leaning every which way on my usually neatly arranged shelves. It was as though I was exiling lesser books, condemning them to the gulag known as the Donation Center merely for the crime of not being up to Canada.  It felt like I was clearing space for a book so broad-shouldered that it required not just its own space on the shelf but the whole shelf, a book so special that it commandeered the space around it.

I don’t normally react to things this way. I don’t go and empty out the refrigerator after an especially good meal, for example, or dismantle the TV after an especially good video.  Usually my household madness is more random than that, its origin and rationale more opaque, more mysterious to me and my long-suffering wife.  But there I was tearing stuff off the shelves madly, holding onto books signed to me or with particularly interesting (to me) origin stories or the ones that my wife gave me for birthdays and Christmas.

Canada is one of those novels like Alice McDermott’s That Night or Ella Leffland’s Rumors of Peace or Richard Russo’s Risk Pool where everyone who reads it goes around forever after claiming the book took place in their home town and, usually due to some detail or character buried in the text that only they noticed, could only have taken place in their home town, not the author’s, and certainly not in yours.  These are the kind of books people feel they own exclusively and force on others for years after.  Just about everyone has their own list of such books.  I do.  When you see small packs of readers roaming in bookstores, three or four strong, handing the books back and forth urgently exhorting, goading and even shaming each other into buying, these are the sorts of books they are two-handing.  Canada will soon be one of those.

One reason for this is the way Ford’s Canada evokes the strangeness of adolescence and divines the strange wisdom of adolescents in such familiar, unsentimental ways.  Right from the beginning, right on the first page, Dell, the protagonist, tells us:

First, I’ll tell you about the robbery our parents committed. Then about the murders, which   happened later. The robbery is the more 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.

As we read Dell is now fifty or so years older than the fourteen-year-old Dell he is telling us about, but it is plain to see that the bank robbery his parents committed—or, more accurately, screwed up— has effected both the younger and older Dell in profound ways.  These changes are not enumerated, not spelled out, but illustrated by the narrative as it goes along.  We are not supposed to feel sorry for Dell; these things happened to him and he is resigned to the consequences. Predictably, his family disintegrates and both he and his twin sister are scattered to the winds. Canada is about that disintegration, exploring the changes in Dell’s emotional and psychological landscape.  It is also about salvaging something, mysteriously, unknowingly, from our childhoods, as Dell did.  Salvaging something by growing up whether we want to or not.

Ford is visiting familiar territory here, leaving Frank Bascombe, the adult hero of The Sportswriter (1986), Independence Day (1995), and The Lay of the Land (2006) in New Jersey, at least temporarily, and returning to the Montana landscape of Wildlife; another story about an adolescent whose family is falling apart.  Wildlife is in many ways the predecessor to Canada. There are similar themes (a family dissolving, fathers), locales (the Northern Plains) and time periods (early ‘Sixties) in the two books, but Wildlife now feels like something of a template for the latter book; it is not nearly as detailed nor the characters as complete as they are in Canada, although it still packs a more visceral emotional wallop than Canada can quite manage. It is another one of those “hand-it-to-your-friend-in-the-bookstore-and-say-“Trust-Me” books and has been since it came out in 1990.  I loved Wildlife and remember it vividly (at least parts of it) nearly a quarter of a century after reading it, which is saying something given how much I’ve read in the meantime and the deteriorating state of my memory.

Each of Canada’s two parts is inhabited by an entirely different set of characters, unified around Dell, the narrator.  His parents and sister dominate the first, which takes place in Great Falls, Montana but they virtually disappear from the second half when Dell is moved to Fort Royal, Saskatchewan. They are replaced by two characters with shady pasts named Charley Quarters and Arthur Remlinger.  Charley Quarters is a familiar character to anyone who was ever an adolescent both fascinated and repelled by a disreputable, perhaps depraved, adult, Remlinger is prototypical hero with feet of clay. He is more respectable that Quarters, outwardly at least, but proves to be more deeply evil than his toady Quarters could ever hope to imagine. The reader knows immediately that the road to perdition starts with these guys, but Dell, thrown unprepared into the adult world, is not equipped to make adult decisions—his options are severely limited, isolated as he is out there on the tundra with no one to help him calibrate his moral compass.

The tone and style of Canada are set by that that first paragraph as well.  Ford maintains Dell’s voice—his precise and simple diction; his perspective, distanced without detachment; accepting yet still wondering, unsure; his calm outward demeanor with the embers of an old rage still burning inside—with an intense and furious focus.  He must have struggled to write a story this strange and savage, with all its hairpin curves and sudden left turns, that he never lets spin out of his control for a single moment.

Right from that first, frank ‘you’ in that first sentence, my identification with Dell was total.  During the time I was reading the book I walked into one of the hundreds of crumby sandwich joints in the Tenderloin and ordered a pastrami on rye.  When I fished out my wallet and pulled a twenty out the woman behind the counter asked,

“Your name?”

I said, “What?”

“Your name?” she said again.

My first reaction to something like this—some stranger asking my name for no reason; it wasn’t like there were hundreds of people all clambering at once for one of their sandwiches—is to go all Jersey on them: “What’s it to ya?”  But I’m from California now (over thirty years!) and realize that Californians don’t get things like that, don’t see all the many layers of humor and incipient camaraderie dancing behind such a statement’s apparent hostility, so instead I just blurted out, “Dell,” and sat down to wait.  I thought it would be amusing, in my imagination if nowhere else, to live as Dell for the duration of my lunch or at least for as long as the transaction with counterwoman lasted.  I tried not to watch while the guy who did the food prep (you couldn’t call it cooking) pulled a pre-sliced (last Thursday?) wad of ‘pastrami’ out of the reefer and stuck it in the microwave…

Anyway, the joke was on me because by the time the sandwich was ready I’d forgotten about the Dell thing completely.  I was reading the book, holding it up and away from all the wet crap that hadn’t been wiped off the table. Suddenly some drunk, who’d been snoozing at the only other table in the place, was tapping on the laminate top of my table with his high school ring. He finally managed to get my attention and directed it, with an over-the-shoulder jerk of his thumb, toward the counterwoman hollering peevishly “Dell?  Dell?” over and over again, holding a plastic basket with my sandwich on it up over her head.  I had succeeded in annoying everyone (all three) in the place; the counterwoman because I hadn’t been paying attention, the drunk because he’d been roused unnecessarily by her squawking, the microwave jockey because he was always annoyed at everything all the time anyway…

The sandwich was as awful as you might imagine and I felt like a moron to boot.

But that’s really the only downside I can come up with to reading Canada.  Except for the mess of made of my bookshelves.

One Response to “Check it Out: Richard Ford’s “Canada””

  1. Great review, Byron! I loved the book too. Been a fan of Ford’s since my dad passed med down his copy of the Sportswriter when I turned 30. What I loved about Canada was how the adult characters clearly have a deeply personal, heroic world views that they want to impart, but they fail so utterly. Dell, who hangs on the words of the adults around him has empathy but little understanding, while his sister is just the opposite.

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