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Richard Ford crosses the border in 'Canada'

"Canada" by Richard Ford (Ecco, May 2012) Photo Credit: Handout /

CANADA, by Richard Ford. Ecco, 420 pp., $27.99.

 

Richard Ford opens "Canada" with a spoiler: "First, I'll tell about the robbery our parents committed. Then about the murders, which happened later."

Those sentences immediately signal that, whatever its subject, this isn't going to be a suspense novel.

The first section of "Canada" unfolds in Great Falls, Mont., in the late spring and summer of 1960. Sputnik is in the skies, the Kennedy-Nixon faceoff is shaping up and Dell Parsons, the narrator, and his twin sister, Berner, are 15.

For 200 pages, Dell meticulously reconstructs the small-potatoes bank heist that blew apart his family when it led to the jailing of his parents: Bev, his father, an ex-Air Force good ol' boy from Alabama; and Neeva, his mother, the bookish daughter of Polish-

Jewish immigrants who settled in Tacoma, Wash.

Dell lays out the petty stolen-beef scheme that goes south and lands Bev in financial trouble; the planning for the bank job he thinks is going to get him out of it; the robbery and its tense, bleak aftermath.

Since he fills us in beforehand on everything that's going to happen, the suspense a reader would normally feel is replaced by dread -- but not for Dell, who's looking back from a distance of half a century. Dell is serene and accepting, and readers of Ford, who won the Pulitzer Prize in 1996, will recognize acceptance as one of his recurrent themes.

It goes hand in hand with a suspicion of revelation, which in Ford's last novel, "The Lay of the Land" (2006), he dismissed as a lie because its effect is "to distract us from the more precious here and now."

He writes something similar at the end of "Canada." The now-growing-old Dell advises us "not to hunt too hard for hidden or opposite meanings -- even in the books you read -- but to look as much as possible straight at the things you can see in broad daylight.

"In the process of articulating to yourself the things you see, you'll always pretty well make sense and learn to accept the world." Ford may be the most down-to-earth major novelist America has ever produced.

His attachment to the here and now is what leads him to layer such a heavy impasto of detail over everything he writes about, and to give the big stuff away in advance so it won't strike with the shock of revelation.

But since I love plot myself, I'm going to reveal as little as I can about Part Two of "Canada" -- the part that explains the title. I will say, though, that Ford's description of the lonely five weeks Dell spends after the robbery are the finest part of the book.

"Nothing later in life," he realizes, "could be as completely normal as it had been for me living in Great Falls." Or, really, normal at all.

Part Three is a beautiful and melancholy epilogue in which Dell reflects on how those long-ago events formed him and led him to the calm acceptance that blows like a breeze through this surprisingly tranquil book.

Sometimes "Canada" is low-key to the point of stupefaction; reading it requires patience. But Ford makes you care about lonely Dell; he makes you like him. When I got to the end of this long novel, I closed it with regret.

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