Canada, by Richard Ford
5 Stars out of 5
The novel Canada, by Richard Ford kept me up nights for a week. I would read it for an hour or so in bed each night and then chase my thoughts around the planet practically till dawn. It’s hard to remember another book I’ve recently read that is this evocative. As I mentioned in my last posting, it stoked long forgotten childhood fears of abandonment in spite of the fact I was never abandoned in any way as a child. Neither was I ever severely tested (still haven’t been for that matter) nor ever dealt cards anywhere near as lousy as those drawn by Dell Parsons, the main character and narrator of the book.
You know that dream many of us once had about sitting down to take a final college exam and realizing that you forgot to read any of the books or attend any of the classes? Well, this novel unsettles you just like that iconic nightmare used to do, except it’s not a college course you’ve forgotten this time around, but a deep dark secret. And while it’s true I have never been seriously tested, and believe that my life has been for the most part cushy and predictable, this book brings all of that into question. What if the cushy streak doesn’t last and something bad is lurking just around the corner? That’s definitely possible. Worse still, what if something really terrible has already happened and I just don’t remember it? Maybe I accidentally committed a horrible crime a long time ago and repressed the memory and am about to awaken to my final day of reckoning having totally forgotten to take any notes or in any way prepare for my defense. Oh my, could that be possible too?
Canada is about a 15 year old boy whose parents decide to rob a bank and as a consequence wreck everything for the whole family. It’s called Canada because that’s where the boy ends up after his parents are imprisoned, and where he finds himself even more abandoned with an even bigger, life-altering train wreck barreling its way towards him through a cold dark tunnel. Ford tells you right up front what’s about happen, and because it’s a novel narrated by the main character as a flashback you know he’s going to end up okay, and yet the suspense Ford builds is practically unbearable. It is like hanging by your thumbs in a dark and empty room with no help within earshot leaving you with no alternative but to keep on reading as quickly as you can.
The book is beautifully written in sparse and haunting prose. It has echoes of Moby Dick – not in the sense of Ahab’s monomaniacal pursuit of the white whale, but I found myself thinking about the ending passage when the Pequod sinks leaving Ishmael as its lone survivor, floating on Queequeg’s coffin until that other whaler, the Rachael, in search of her missing children finds another orphan. It more closely echoes Joseph Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness, or the recent re-make of that classic that I greatly enjoyed, State of Wonder by Ann Platchett. Arthur Remlinger, Ford’s mysterious antagonist isolated in the empty wilds of western Canada, is every bit as evil as Conrad’s Kurtz and as darkly nuanced as Platchett’s Dr. Swenson, but unlike either of these characters, Arthur Remlinger is in equal parts Big Time and Small Time. While certainly capable of big time evil, he is at his core just an ordinary guy, with ordinary broken dreams like many other ordinary guys you probably know.
Canada is about crossing borders and forging a new life from scratch with no looking back. It’s about how even the most ordinary of people are capable of planning and committing serious, even capital crimes. It’s about abandonment and human endurance. The main protagonist and narrator, Dell Parsons, is a character you will long remember. In most ways, the book ends exactly as Ford signals it will end, and yet in another, deeper and totally unexpected way, it doesn’t quite end at all. Dark secrets remain.
Canada is a book that couldn’t possibly be about you. On the other hand, it could be about you and me exactly. Read it if you dare.