Border Lines

Richard Ford's new novel offers cold comfort.

"Common sense should’ve dictated none of this ever take place. But no one had access to common sense.”

That’s a good observation to make, especially if, as a quiet 15-year-old, you watched your parents leave the house one day and come back the next after robbing a bank.

“How do you know what’s happening to you?”

That’s a good question to ask, if you’re that same 15-year-old, and you find yourself being driven by a stranger from Great Falls, Montana, to parts unknown in Saskatchewan, Canada.

Those are two of the signal events in the life of Dell Parsons in Canada (Ecco/HarperCollins), the big new novel from celebrated short-story writer and novelist Richard Ford. A Montana husband and wife cross the lines (both ethical and geographical) and rob a bank in North Dakota in 1960; their son finds himself crossing a borderline into a new life and left to meditate on what it all means.

But there’s another observation to make — one that comes from an unsavory character up there in Canada — an observation that turns out to be true enough in Canada: “It’s hard to go through life without killing someone.”

It’s just as hard to know what to make of this latest novel, his first in six years, from Richard Ford, who replaced the late Barry Hannah as senior fiction professor at the University of Mississippi in 2011 and who will move this fall to teach at Columbia University.

Part One of Canada (which weighs in at 418 pages but covers only a few months’ time in Dell’s first-person narrative) concerns the boy’s life in Great Falls, where his parents — Bev, a country boy at heart from Alabama, and Neeva, daughter of Jewish immigrants from the Northwest via Poland — make for an unlikely couple operating inside a strained marriage. Times are bad for Bev, who, after exiting the Air Force, tries his hand at selling new cars, then used cars, then farmland and ranch land until he agrees to act as middle-man in a penny-ante scheme involving stolen beef. But that scheme runs into trouble, and Bev needs $2,000, which he doesn’t have, to settle the score. So his thoughts turn to robbery, and he turns to Neeva to act as accomplice.

"It's hard to go through life without killing someone."

What Dell doesn’t know as eyewitness, he learns in Neeva’s notes from prison (“A Chronicle of a Crime Committed by a Weak Person”), so Neeva has her own reasons for agreeing to the robbery, but police have no trouble locating the couple behind that robbery. Bev and Neeva are at home in Great Falls when Dell and his twin sister Bender watch as police handcuff the couple and lead them off to jail for trial and eventually prison. Apart from a brief visit to their parents’ cells, Dell and Bender are not to see Bev and Neeva again. Dell is not to see Bender again either until decades later. She took off on her own shortly after her parent’s capture. Dell is, in a sense and in accordance with his mother’s wishes, captured too by a family friend and taken to Canada for safekeeping. And that’s where Part Two of Canada takes place.

It’s where Dell is housed alone in a shack and, without protesting his circumstances, put to work miles away in a hotel in a town called Fort Royal. There he’s under the charge of a mysterious figure, Arthur Remlinger, who owns the hotel, which caters to railroaders and bird hunters. It’s Dell’s job to clean the guest rooms and then, under the eye of another strange figure, Charley Quarters, clean the ducks and geese downed by the gunners.

Remlinger himself is a haunted man and hunted man with a complicated past and criminal past that Dell learns of on his own and thanks to Quarters. And also thanks to Quarters, Dell is to watch for himself just how hard it is to go through life without killing not only someone but more than one.

It’s a wonder Dell survives into adulthood psychologically intact — enough to make a good marriage as portrayed in Part Three of Canada and a good career teaching high-school English in the border town of Windsor, Ontario. This after his mother’s suicide in jail, his father’s total disappearance, his sister’s boundary-crossing sexual advances, and his witnessing of two murders and participation in the burials that follow (which Dell does not report to authorities).

What are readers to come away with after reading Canada, Part One of which is a meticulous but satisfying narrative, Part Two of which is a slow, less than satisfying mystery?

And what of “significance,” as Dell in adulthood asks of his life in Part Three? It “weighs heavy, that’s the most it does,” he concludes on the final page of Canada. But it’s outweighed by something more chilling that Dell learned from his father and that Dell learns for himself.

From Bev Parsons to son: “Our most profound experiences are physical events.”

From Dell Parsons to his students: “I believe in what you see being most of what there is.”

Cold comfort, then: That’s what many readers are likely to get from Canada.  

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