Wilkie Collins, the master plotter of Victorian fiction, famously attributed his literary success to the old music hall adage “Make ’em laugh, make ’em cry, make ’em wait.” In Canada—his first novel since The Lay of the Land (2006)—Richard Ford emphasizes the third element of that snappy precept. While Canada sets up numerous scenes that teeter on the edge of the comic, they usually slide into the pathetic, macabre, or hallucinatory. The novel’s forlorn tone—of thoughts that lie too deep for tears—quite naturally grows out of the narrator’s painful recollections of a close family destroyed by a foolish act of parental desperation. Ford really excels, however, in his virtuoso command of narrative suspense. He makes us wait.
The two main actions of Canada are announced in its opening lines: “First, I’ll tell about the robbery our parents committed. Then about the murders, which happened later.” Such sensational words, even presented with matter-of-fact understatement, will grab anyone’s attention. But on the surface, they would also seem to be revealing too much, arguably wrecking the novel’s plot. Yet Ford is nothing if not sensitive to his sentences, emphasizing in many interviews the great care he takes over the subtleties of sound and sense. Nobody, he says, looks longer at his words than he does or calculates more precisely their effects.
So readers should also look again. Note that pronoun “our” instead of “my”—this is, in some way, going to be a story about siblings. Notice, too, that Ford’s narrator dances over whether the robbery is successful or not. Finally, he carefully avoids saying who is murdered and by whom. Ford’s real interest doesn’t lie in the robbery or the murders per se so much as in the events leading up to the crimes and to their aftereffects on those siblings. We know that the robbery and the murders will take place. But when? And how? And what will happen subsequently? So we attend, we observe, we prepare for the inevitable. Readers may recall that Gabriel García Márquez strikingly employed just this technique in his novella Chronicle of a Death Foretold.
In fact, Ford virtually flaunts his artistic chutzpah by the regular insertion of “now-you-don’t-see-it, now-you-do” flourishes throughout his narrative: in the middle of a page of slow, rich description or of slightly ponderous meditation, he will casually drop in a key fact, almost in passing, like a little nosegay thrown to the surprised crowd. After his opening paragraph, for instance, he introduces the Parsons family: Retired Air Force Captain Bev Parsons, his wife Neeva, and their fifteen-year-old twins, one a girl named Berner. But Ford withholds full identification of the other twin, the book’s narrator. (We wonder, though, about all these distinctly odd, almost transgendered names.) Then, just when most readers will have concluded that Ford simply isn’t going to reveal the name of the narrator, Bev addresses his son as “Dell.” Ford defers this information until page 77, at the beginning of Chapter 12.
Similarly coy tantalizers and throwaway revelations are scattered like stick-it notes throughout the novel. On page 20 Dell—we’ll call him that, though we don’t yet know his name—reveals that he learned about his parents’ crime from the newspaper and from what people told him at the time:
And, of course, I know some particulars because we were there in the house with them and observed them—as children do—as things changed from ordinary, peaceful and good, to bad, then worse, and then to as bad as could be (though no one got killed until later).
Again, on page 54, Dell mentions his mother’s “Chronicle of a Crime Committed by a Weak Person,” adding that “possibly she thought a well-written version of their story would offer a future for her when she got out of prison—which she never did.” At this point, the reader still doesn’t know how Neeva was captured or why she never left prison. Only on page 103 does Dell let slip—parenthetically, between a set of dashes, as if it were an afterthought of little consequence—that “she’d taken her life in prison.” (But not how: we’ll have to wait even longer to learn that.) Such nuggets, like flecks of gold in a miner’s slurry, elicit a jolt of surprise or satisfaction each time they occur.
In short, Ford is deliberately playing with his reader, almost showing off: look how much I can divulge, spin out, or hold back and still keep you hooked. Some readers may be irritated by this technique as overly contrived; most, however, will find it dexterous and artful. Whichever the case, Ford leaves us in no doubt about his iron grip on his book’s pace and rhythm. Years ago, the novelist was asked about his relationship to his characters and he replied, “Master to slave. Sometimes I hear them at night singing over in their cabins.” That’s a daring analogy and an apt one. Ford’s novels may sometimes look loose and baggy, but that casualness is rigorously calculated.
The first half of Canada is set in 1960, in Great Falls, Montana. (This is a geography made familiar to readers in Wildlife, Ford’s 1990 novel about a teenage boy discovering his mother’s adultery and its consequences.) Bev Parsons, an easygoing Southerner, “big, plank shouldered, talkative, funny, forever wanting to please anybody who came in range,” has taken early retirement from the Air Force, possibly because of a scandal over some stolen beef. Like other Ford heroes, in particular Frank Bascombe of The Sportswriter (1986), Bev is a dreamer, a somewhat feckless self-mythologizer who “existed in another world,” who relied on “his easy scheming nature, his optimism about the future, his charm.”
His wife, Neeva, is the thirty-four-year-old daughter of Jewish immigrants: small and bony, she wears spectacles, reads French poetry, and is more intellectual than her husband. Neither of their fifteen-year-old twins is physically prepossessing: Berner is skinny, flat-chested, bossy, and clearly bound for trouble. Dell is compact, neat, with “pretty” features, mainly interested in school, chess, and learning to keep bees. The family sticks to itself, refusing to interact with the town or otherwise “assimilate.”
After leaving the service, Bev finds a job selling cars, bringing home various new models, including a flashy Coronet, fully loaded with “push-button drive and electric windows and swivel seats, and also stylish fins, gaudy red tail-lights, and a long whipping antenna.” As usual, Ford carefully embeds his story in its time, in this instance 1960, as well as place. Characters talk about the Seattle Space Needle, chess champion Bobby Fischer, the Rexall Drugstore, Bab-O cleanser, “the spy plane incident, Francis Gary Powers, the ‘Winds of Change,’ the revolution in Cuba, Kennedy being a Catholic, Patrice Lumumba,” and the recently executed murderer Caryl Chessman. Dell reads the World Book Encyclopedia and keeps some Charles Atlas muscleman books in his bedroom, along with copies of his “Rick Brant science mysteries.” Obviously nothing bad will ever happen in such an ordinary, familiar world. As Dell ruefully observes, “To me, it’s the edging closer to the point of no return that’s fascinating…. How amazingly far normalcy extends.”
While the characters in Canada spring to life through their distinctively individual voices, Ford tends to shy away from prolonged conversations, often preferring reported speech. Instead he lavishes his most intense attention on descriptions of people and locales. For example, early in the book, Bev drives his two children out into the country, passing the dilapidated houses of some Indians:
The first house had no front door or panes in its windows, and the back portion of it had fallen in. Parts of car bodies and a metal bed frame and a standing white refrigerator were moved into the front yard. Chickens bobbed and pecked over the dry ground. Several dogs sat on the steps, observing the road. A white horse wearing a bridle was tethered to a wooden post off to the side of the house. Grasshoppers darted up into the hot air the car displaced. Someone had parked a black-painted semi-trailer in the middle of the field behind the house, and beside it was a smaller panel truck that had HAVRE CARPET painted on its side.
Those words “Havre Carpet,” which mean nothing to Dell and Berner, deliver a little wave to attentive readers. By this time, we know that just such a truck delivers the stolen beef.
Of course, this isn’t just any casual drive in the country: Bev is in big trouble and his latest get-rich-quick scheme has begun to fall apart. The Indians, volatile and dangerous, are angry over a failure to be paid properly for their contraband beef, and on Sunday morning one appears outside the Parsons’ home. Dell and Berner have been playing badminton:
It was just when the Lutherans’ bell had begun ringing that an old car pulled up in front of our house and stopped. I thought the driver—a man—was one of the Lutherans and would get out and go across to the church. But he just sat in the old, crudely painted red Plymouth and smoked a cigarette as if he was waiting on something or someone to start paying attention to him.
Eventually, the man climbs out of the car:
At almost the same instant my father came out the front door, still in his Bermudas, and went down the concrete walk as if he’d been watching to see if the man would get out. Now that he had, something immediate needed to be done about it.
We both heard our father say, “Okay, whoa. Whoa-whoa-whoa-whoa,” as the man came slowly up the walk. “You don’t need to be showing up here now. This is my home,” he said. “This is going to get settled.” Our father laughed at the end of saying that, though nothing seemed funny.
The stranger turns out to be Marvin Williams, known as Mouse. He and Bev talk quietly, as the children watch. Only at the end of the chapter does Dell reveal what was said and its consequences:
It was probably, I came to think, in the hours after the Indian, Williams-Mouse, stood in our yard and threatened to kill our father, and possibly kill all of us if he wasn’t paid…, that our father began putting together thoughts of needing to do something extra-ordinary to save us, which turned out to be thoughts about robbing a bank—about which bank to rob, and when, and how he could enlist our mother so he could lessen the likelihood anyone would find out, therefore keeping them out of jail. Which didn’t happen.
Over the next one hundred pages we learn about the preparation for the robbery, then how it took place, and what occurred afterward. The afterward is all-important. As Ford told an interviewer many years ago, “I’m always interested in what happens after the bad things happen…because it’s a proving ground for drama.”