There is a lovely mix of hope, suspicion, concern, and desire that is experienced when one picks up a book with the heft of “Canada,” Richard Ford’s new novel about — well, about more than a few things, as befits a volume of its breadth, pace, and density.
Ford’s narrator is Dell Parsons, a retiring teacher, who tells the story largely from the point of view of his 15-year-old self. Young Dell is a sensitive teen whose life and family are broken apart in the book’s first half when his financially-troubled parents rob a North Dakota bank in 1960. The boy spends the novel’s second half in passive drift, shocked, even as his twin sister, Berner, breaks into violent flight after their parents are jailed. She runs away, heads south, while Dell essentially allows himself to be kidnapped by a family acquaintance and smuggled into Canada, where he falls under the care of a strange Kurtzian expatriate, Arthur Remlinger.
Ford never gets in a hurry with his prose, but one reads this book, Ford’s first in six years, with surprising quickness, not so much for any pall-mall action narrative but instead because of the structure. Often the chapters are but two or three pages, related in Dell’s distant voice, one that expresses a slight curiosity about the world but is also deeply puzzled by much — shellshocked, bubble-bound — only to close with a powerfully understated epiphany. The cumulative effect becomes like that of reading a series of parables.
One might think that a book that pretty much begins with a slow-motion bank robbery would see its violence peak there, but the real violence escalates slowly and later, in the psychological death-grip of a widening, deepening gyre of loneliness and — more terrible still — the vanishing of significant yearning or ambition. Dell is like a seed of wheat cast on barren soil — watered, perhaps, by a brief rain and warmed by some sun, enough to initiate some beginning growth, but destined to become stunted.
The tenuousness of connections — between brother and sister, husband and wife, memory and desire, homeland and allegiance — all these bonds seem to fray as if beneath some great cosmic force, some howling wind that will not countenance them. A reader keeps hoping for redemption or mercy, but there is much in “Canada’’ that is unforgiving.
Ford has written thousands of pages in his life and knows what he is doing. I’ve been thinking a lot about why so many pages, and so much description, is devoted to the slackwater times in Saskatchewan when Dell is just waiting, waiting, with little if anything changing; with nothing happening. Pages and pages of heat and light, the slow cant of the seasons, the boy tiny beneath the vast and cruelly implacable sheltering sky where his obedience — his fierce need to believe in obedience, at least, in the absence of intimacy or love — has led him to a place where his options are so limited as to seem a purgatory: a world of lost misfits who seethe with violence, from Remlinger, to the cross-dressing Metis, Charley Quarters, to the visiting Americans who travel to Saskatchewan to kill geese.
Remlinger is as eerie a character as Ford has written. Deeply intellectual but stunted emotionally, Remlinger is likewise in limbo, awaiting the reckoning for an act of violence he committed as a very young man years earlier. When his inquisitors from the States finally do arrive — the nondescript “sports” who claim that they are only there to hunt — they enter the story with the same understated malevolence and aura of Hemingway’s antagonists in “The Killers.”
On the one occasion when Dell truly rises above the quasi-captivity of his situation and strikes out on bicycle across the prairie, desperate to find someone else like himself, he encounters a peer at an orphanage school for girls who turns out to be disturbingly feral, and Dell retreats, his one groping attempt to create a life or even one moment of his own choosing turning horribly wrong.
This section — the time lost in Canada — could be shorter, but could be longer, too. I’ve been thinking about this a lot. My best guess is that Ford thought about it a good bit too. I think the book is mainly about loneliness. I think it would be a less lonely story without that long and desperate tract of nothingness, discomforting sometimes to inhabit even as a reader: so much so that when the “sports’’ finally arrive, with their air of dense violence all around them, it is almost a relief.
The book concludes with a compressed section, and again, as with the slow and lengthy treatment of the time spent in Saskatchewan, this possesses a structural and emotional logic. A life has been lost, squandered, falling horrifically through the cracks. Deeply affecting is Dell’s reunion with his ailing and aging remaining family member. Deeply moving is Dell’s attempts to convince himself that the choices one makes in life matter, in this country or any other, and in this era, or in a life lived hostage to the past. One considers this book long after it is finished, which may be one of the best standards for literature, or, indeed, a life lived.Rick Bass is the author of 30 books. This fall, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt will publish a nonfiction work, “The Black Rhinos of Namibia.” He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.