Magazine article The New Yorker

Canada Dry

Magazine article The New Yorker

Canada Dry

Article excerpt

Richard Ford is a writer of jangling personal fascination to many in the literary world. Charming and charmed, he is an embodiment of interesting and intimidating contradictions: a Southern childhood, a Midwestern education, a restless adulthood occurring not just in New York and New Jersey but in seemingly every state beginning with "M" (or "L"). Brief stints in law school and the Marines (and an application to the C.I.A.). Wanderlust and a knack for real estate. The Irish-American Southerner's gift of gab. The belligerent responses to book reviews, the poor spelling, the beautiful French, the mercurial temperament, the indelible child characters from someone with no children at all. He cuts a transfixing figure for even an ordinary reader's curiosity: the book-jacket photographs with their silvery-bronze patina suggesting a pale-eyed cattle rustler, his laser-blue gaze smudged simultaneously with apprehension and derring-do, a tin-woodman tint evoking a man of metal and mettle, in sorrowful quest of his forgotten heart.

When, in 2008, Ford left his publisher, Knopf (which was the original publisher of four of his books, although not even the first four), for HarperCollins, news of his departure was reported on the front page of the Times' Arts section. Such is the swirl around the man, even as the work itself, at its best, is pure vocal grace, quiet humor, precise and calm observation. And so, in a time when the novels of even his most brilliant contemporaries are often fleet and attenuated, the telltale sign of waning energies or multi-book publishing contracts, a hearty meal of a novel from Richard Ford, even if it is titled "Canada," represents a warm moment in American letters.

Opening in Montana in 1960, "Canada" is a story told by Dell Parsons, the son of a retired Air Force pilot and a schoolteacher--parents who have turned hapless bank robbers, and who are quickly apprehended and sent to jail. Dell also has a twin sister, named Berner. "Berner and I were fraternal twins--she was six minutes older--and looked nothing alike." (Twins who are not the same sex are always fraternal, not identical: that a narrator would stop to explain this is unfortunate and a mistake, perhaps of the proofreading variety, that it would be good no longer to see in a novel.) The narrative proceeds in the perfectly melded voice of the adult Dell, who is now a retired English teacher, and the fifteen-year-old Dell, who has witnessed his family break apart forever. It is a prairie America of box elders and elms not yet done in by beetles. The deer and the antelope play, or sort of. Families are presumed to be solid, although they are put together in a hurry.

The narrative moves leisurely, as Dell ponders why his parents embarked on their foolhardy robbery: his father had got into an illegal business deal with local Cree Indians; he then needed money and feared for his children's lives. The narrator's mind churns and circles, like a buzzard over a corpse. Young Dell is a budding chess player, and he has learned patience in contemplating the moves of others: "Each one was sacrificing something--a strength--to achieve an advance toward a goal." The family has lived a peripatetic existence, moving from airbase to airbase. Dell has learned from his mother, who is Jewish, and who fears and disparages these communities, to keep his distance, to absorb profound breaks in his life, and to understand that everything one loves can be taken away, and that one must register and contemplate facts and meanings later, in a spirit of acceptance. As indeed both mother and son do in a literary fashion by the story's heartbreaking close. "Things happen when people are not where they belong," Dell also learns.

If one is looking for a powerful through-line of suspense and drama, one will not find it in this book: instead, one must take a more scenic and meditative trip. There are novels that are contraptions, configured like cages, traps, or flypaper, to catch things and hold them. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.