Richard Ford’s breathtaking seventh novel, Canada, offers some tips on how to live a life, none of which are new or particularly revolutionary: perspective, moderation, acceptance. But it’s how Ford dispenses these lessons—through the charmingly earnest lens of sixty-six-year-old Dell Parsons, our narrator—that makes Canada so optimistic despite its dark content, so essential for its simplicity, and far and away the best novel of 2012.
The opening lines make clear some great awfulness will follow. “First, I’ll tell about the robbery our parents committed,” Dell says from 2010, fifty years later. “Then about the murders, which happened later.” While these events are at the center of the first two sections of the three-part novel, Ford devotes little time to the crimes in the narrative—something he’s answered to in interviews—focusing instead on Dell’s family history, as well as his general day-to-day home life in Great Falls, Montana. Dell and his twin sister Berner are different kinds of fifteen-year-olds: Berner’s a little more wild, stronger, daring; Dell is eager to get better at chess, anxious to learn but not particular smart, and interested in beekeeping.
Their father Bev and mother Neeva, likewise, share little in common but their offspring—conceived at a chance encounter, buoyed by post-war jubilation. Bev’s a proud Air Force serviceman from Alabama, Neeva’s a Whitman-educated poet and the Jewish daughter of immigrant parents. Despite the pair’s great differences, Ford’s composition is not at all broad: the two are sharply sketched, colorful, interesting characters.
The family gets by. Bev’s service in the Air Force brings them to Great Falls, where they aren’t really assimilated or accepted. Bev leaves the Air Force after twenty years—this due to a bungled meat-smuggling scheme involving some local Native Americans—but decides to stay in Great Falls. He tries his hand at different things to buoy his government pension—selling used automobiles, buying and selling ranches—but soon falls back on old habits and re-engages his contacts in an even dumber plan: arranging for meat to be stolen (at great danger) by Native Americans, smuggled to a (relatively unknown and not particularly trustworthy) man named Spencer Digby, finally consumed by happy diners on cross-country passenger trains. And Bev relishes the role of middleman, feeling that he carries negligible liability. But things, of course, soon go to pot when Digby refuses to pay for (allegedly) spoiled meat and flees to Chicago by train, leaving Bev to deal with the debt and some very (rightly) pissed off Native Americans.
The knowledge of what’s coming makes this entire ordeal a little less amusing. But it’s a captivating evolution that Ford creates—the journey from small crimes to much more trouble. And the writing throughout the entire first half, when the reader is waiting-waiting-waiting for the robbery to happen, from the initial acknowledgment in the opening sentences and the long treatise on the Parsons family to the planning and execution, is unfailingly superb—precise, musical, enjoyable. It’s the kind of writing that makes one want to write more and less at the same time: Inspired by Ford’s beauty but frustrated by one’s relative impotence.
Having revealed the major plot points early on, Ford controls the story with exposition rather than action. It’s not so much a tease to know what’s coming and to be waiting for it, but a long, pleasant ride through some beautiful place.
Ford’s crafting and control of the story, likewise, is incredible. Little by little, we come to know that Bev has a sort of sinister, bemused understanding of his qualities. As Dell relays, his father always seemed to consider himself a criminal, smarter and more charming than most, cunning and composed enough to pull off a bank robbery (something he’s even mentioned to Dell once in passing). But Bev—only after enlisting his wife in the plan—learns that he’s really none of these things. Sharp enough to rob a bank, perhaps, but not enough to get away with it. When they are caught—almost immediately after the robbery—Dell and his sister are left alone. Berner flees for San Francisco, leaving Dell to wait for social services to come place him under (presumably awful) state-run care. With the aid of his mother’s friend—Neeva having made arrangements, seeming to know the plan would lead straight to prison—Dell heads for Canada.
In Canada, Dell falls under the care of a seemingly harmless weirdo named Charley Quarters and a charismatic sociopath named Arthur Remlinger. Dell does odd jobs in Remlinger’s hotel—a haven in remote Saskatchewan (Fort Royal) for foreign hunters and all manner of passers-through, many of whom feast on the Filipino prostitutes provided by management—and tries to just get by as best he can. He mainly just longs to be in school, and seems not at all bothered by—perhaps resigned to—what his parents did, and the fact that it led him to such a strange place.
And it’s Dell’s state, colored by an earnest, what-can-you-really-do-about-it outlook, that gives Canada such powerful optimism, warmth, and effect. His goal in life—to just be normal—is so simple, so proportioned to his own existence that the great events around him can’t throw him off course.
When, in part three, we see present-day Dell as a functional adult, despite his parents imprisoned for robbing a bank and his having witnessed a double-murder in Saskatchewan, it’s, well, wonderful. Those events colored his life, of course, but he found what he sought in Great Falls before the robbery and Fort Royal after: normal.
It’s discomforting to read something you didn’t really care for, or failed to connect with. But it’s more difficult to review a novel you truly loved—as I did Canada. And on top of that, this book is not some scrappy underdog I’m just rooting for, not something I felt a very specific personal connection with. It strikes me more as the masterwork of a true professional. It’s a book so complete—and certain of itself—that it seems to exist on its own plane, far away.