Thursday, January 31, 2013

Can't Look Away

Somehow novelist Richard Ford, whose books I've read for years, manages to hold our attention when nothing much happens for scores of pages at a time while we wait for the disaster explicitly foretold on the first page of his latest novel, "Canada," to unfold. It's not that we can't look away from this train wreck; it's that we can't look away when we know that a train wreck's bound to happen somewhere down the line. In fact, it's like we're riding in that train along with the book's then 15-year-old narrator, named Dell, and the other three members of his ill-fated family. We could get off at any page, but our anxiety over the fate of the faux-naive narrator, his fraternal twin sister and mismatched parents is a kind of psychic glue. While we wait for the other shoe to drop after learning of the parents' absurd criminal plan, we share the narrator's agonizing tension.
And then, of course, as the narrator tells us in the same hopelessly understated tone, also at the novel's very start, "there were the murders."
The family is living in a small city in Montana after Dell's father quits the military over the discovery of his small-time scam. Without the old military-base connection, the family has no reason to be in this place; or perhaps any place. Dell's father is the family's central problem, his character flawed by by his inability to see that his friendly "Southern" personal charm will not by itself overcome his catastrophic failures of judgment, such as his belief that his small-time con games will have no ill consequences simply because he cannot see around his own ever hopeful, delusionary temperament to face the world clearly. Dell's mother, a committed loner and deluded in her own way, doesn't want her children to "assimilate" into the low-level culture around them.
The book's great accomplishment is telling this story from the point of view of a persuasively typical American boy of the late Fifties with no one to rely on but his ill-matched parents and his more perceptive, but cynical sister. Dell just wants everything to work out OK; the anticipation of starting high school is enough to keep him going. He's the kind of kid who studies chess books in the hope of making friends with the guys on the chess club. It hurts to see any part of yourself in any of these characters. His sister is the kind of unhappy adolescent girl who's already discovered the other town misfit and is planning to run away with him, even before her parents' absurdly ill-considered crime venture brings the roof down on top of them all.
Ford manages to spin his tale through Del's narration -- recollected in some tranquility decades later, while keeping the feel and tone of thoughtful but unsophisticated adolescent consciousness -- as the boy reconstructs what happened, what he was thinking then, what his parents must have or might have been thinking in a factual, reflective manner that keeps the reader waiting for what might appear to be an ordinary American family to hit a bridge abutment (metaphorically speaking) at 60 miles per hour.
And after it happens, Dell's life gets worse, and weirder. Then comes the "Canada" part of the book, and given the title you can't say you weren't warned. The still hopeful, still remarkably self-reliant Dell endures loneliness, material squalor and emotional privation, while landing, through circumstances bearing that same train-wreck anticipation of inevitability that carried us through the first part of the novel, in the clutches of a deranged Ivy League dropout whose self-delusions make his own father's inadequacies seem benign. His parents still in jail back in the States, and his sister off on her own weird trip, as Dell's new life begins in a Saskatchewan ghost town, any reason-loving reader such as my wife would be justified in throwing her hands up and complaining "this is a whole other story!"
But even as we know there's another disaster looming -- bearing down on us like a 10-ton truck on a lonesome Canadian prairie highway -- most of us are unable to tear our eyes away.
Like all really good works of fiction -- the best ones, maybe -- the subject of this novel is human existence. It remains an inexhaustible subject. "Canada" says what it says about what matters to us in a peculiar way that is all its own, because it has to.