CANADA by Richard Ford (HarperCollins), 420 pages, $29.99 cloth. Rating: NNNN
You'd think understatement would reduce a narrative's emotional impact, but Richard Ford's low-key Canada really creeps up on you. His seventh novel is a stylistic masterpiece.
Retired teacher Dell Parsons relates the history of his dad, ex-bombadier Bev, and mother, Neeva, a Jewish transplant from Tacoma, Washington, full of regret, who cross the state line from their Montana town to rob a bank in North Dakota.
When they're imprisoned, Dell's twin sister, Berner runs away, and a family friend arranges for Dell to be sent to Fort Royal, Saskatchewan, where mysterious hotelier Arthur Remlinger takes him in. Despite Dell's attempts to remain invisible, trouble seems to find him.
There's almost no suspense. In the first sentence we learn that Dell's parents robbed a bank and that murders occur later. Dell's alive and well, teaching in Windsor, so he obviously lived through it all.
And the prose is just plain flat. The twins' strange sexual encounter is dealt with in almost throwaway fashion. True, the book is full of detailed descriptions of the empty spaces of the prairies or the way the hotel sign tints the colour of Dell's tiny room below, but they're matter-of-fact, never dazzling.
As a result, the story, despite its violent contours, unfolds quietly, reflecting Dell's unassuming passivity - his main survival tactic.
Ford's other characters, drawn in his signature direct fashion, are equally vivid. Bev is a charming naïf who thinks no one will pick him out of a crowd when he's everything small-town folks are not. Charlie Quarters, who supervises Dell's work organizing the goose hunt for hotel guests, maintains a menacing presence. And extreme rightist Remlinger is a devastating combination of refinement and unhinged anger.
Weirdly riveting and, for all its languor, emotionally charged.
Ford appears onstage at Luminato on June 16. For more info, go to luminato.com.
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