Richard Ford is one of my favorite authors, and since he hasn't published a new book since 2006's "The Lay of the Land," I couldn't wait to get my hands on his new novel "Canada."
Ford has an uncommon ear for language that somehow balances frank and straightforward storytelling with deft and sensitive descriptions, and the writing in "Canada" is no exception. It's the story of 15-year-old Dell Parsons, who is saddled with a badly mismatched egotistical and uneducated father and an overly educated and morose mother. He also has a twin sister, Berner, who seems much older than he does, and the entire first half of the book is set in Montana, not Canada.
Ford's opening lines are textbook for how to immerse the reader in a story without a long setup or needless background:
First, I'll tell about the robbery our parents committed. Then about the murders, which happened later. The robbery is the more important part, since it served to set up my and my sister's lives on the courses they eventually followed.
Unfortunately, Ford uses this device throughout the novel to an unnecessary degree. We find out key plot points at the beginning of several crucial scenes and then have to read through the scenes to reach what we already know has happened. I don't mind some well-placed hints about what's to come, but an outright giveaway can derail the narrative's momentum when it's used too often.
That criticism aside, Ford is a master at developing characters and setting scenes. After Dell's parents are jailed for robbing the bank, his sister runs away and Dell is driven to Canada by a friend of his mother's. The novel then turns to how Dell handles this bizarre turn of events and the strange characters he meets in Saskatchewan.
In typical Ford style, a few sentences perfectly capture the personality of Charley Quarters, the man who takes charge of Dell when he first arrives in Canada:
He had a strange, sour-sweet odor on him I could feel in my nose — from his clothes and possibly his hair. He was small and chesty and dense looking and muscular, with an oversized head. ... His teeth, when he smiled his unlikeable smile, were large and yellow and all in evidence.
The man who eventually takes charge of Dell is one Arthur Remlinger, a Harvard-educated American with a mysterious past who runs the Leonard Hotel. Dell is drawn to Remlinger's intellect and craves his attention, but eventually understands that there is something dangerous about him.
As the story moves along, the reader is securely in Dell's corner. The poor teenager has been abandoned by the irresponsible actions of his parents and placed rashly in a questionable situation, and yet he strives only to do his best and wants to return to school. He is the "good son" who only needs a bit of care and feeding to thrive but doesn't get it until he's seen some pretty terrible things.
While "Canada" doesn't live up to Ford's Pulitzer-Prize-winning "Independent Day," the second in his masterful Frank Bascombe trilogy, it's still worth a look. Just be prepared when Dell spills the big news before offering up the details.