Magazine article The Spectator

Don't Hold Your Breath

Magazine article The Spectator

Don't Hold Your Breath

Article excerpt

Canada by Richard Ford Bloomsbury, £18.99, pp. 420, ISBN 9780747598602

The case for Richard Ford isn't hard to make. Ever since his breakthrough novel The Sportswriter in 1986, his multi-awardwinning fiction has combined an unsparing intelligence with an unashamed high-mindedness about what literature can achieve - nothing less than a careful exploration of the best way to live. In some hands, this moral sense might feel selfconscious, sentimental or even faintly embarrassing. In Ford's, it's done with such measured skill that the impact is quietly overwhelming. Sentence by sentence, too, his prose is pretty much peerless. Every word that makes it onto the page has clearly been on trial for its life, before being triumphantly acquitted.

The case against Richard Ford is trickier - and, because it carries obvious risks of philistinism, has generally been left to ordinary readers rather than critics: that, for all his undeniable talent, the experience of actually reading his books can often be quite boring. The trouble with Canada is that it makes even us long-time fans fear the philistines might be on to something.

Not that there's any sign of this in what will surely become Canada's famous opening lines: 'First, I'll tell about the robbery our parents committed. Then about the murders, which happened later.' But if that leads you to expect a thrill-packed ride, my advice would be not to hold your breath.

The narrator, like that of Ford's notably shorter novel Wildlife (1990), is a teenager living with his mismatched parents in Great Falls, Montana in 1960 when his genial father gets sacked for stealing - in this case, from the Air Force. Struggling to adjust to civilian life, Bev Parsons soon sets up another scam to supply stolen beef to a railroad dining car, until a deal goes wrong and he finds himself owing $2,000.

Bev's unexpected solution to this problem is to persuade his wife Neeva (bookish, sceptical, Jewish) to join him in robbing a bank. One incompetent heist later, and the couple are arrested, leaving narrator Dell and his twin sister Berner to the care of the state. But before they're hauled off to the orphanage, Berner runs away, and their mother gets her friend Mildred Remlinger to drive Dell to Canada, where he's taken in by Mildred's brother, Arthur, who owns a spectacularly seedy hotel.

Dell is 66 when he's telling the story - and, happily, shares Ford's ability to write beautifully about more or less anything. He also shares the same astonishingly atmospheric sense of place, which serves him especially well once he reaches the bleak prairie setting of 1960 Saskatchewan.

As a thematic device, the set-up works perfectly too. A central idea of the novel is that the border separating the normal and everyday from the weird and disorientating can be (like that between America and Canada) surprisingly easy to cross, and surprisingly difficult to return from. As a piece of plotting, though, it's much less successful.

Like many a Ford protagonist before him, Dell is constantly torn between the need to explain what happened and an awareness that some things defy explanation - but in Ford's previous work, the inexplicable has always been believable. Here, the initial transformation of an ordinary American couple into armed robbers feels less like powerful evidence of human irrationality, and more like a literary artifice created to get the book going in the first place. At times, in fact, it's uncomfortably reminiscent of what Dell says about his parents' illsuited marriage: '[It was] like a long proof in mathematics in which the first calculation is wrong, following which all other calculations move you further away from how Sentence by sentence, Ford's prose is pretty much peerless. …

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