Dell Parsons, the narrator of Richard Ford's conflicted new novel, Canada (Ecco, 432 pages, $27.99), tells us right off about the story's major event. His parents became unlikely bank robbers. The novel is two narratives, unevenly stitched together. There's Dell's life in Montana, before his family blows apart after his parents' criminal folly, and his exile in a stark and violent Saskatchewan landscape, where the 15-year-old Dell is sent after their arrest.
Great stories often give us a sense of what is lost when events change the narrator's life, and in this novel's compelling first half, Ford allows Dell to gently immerse us in the Parsonses' lives. Dell is a reflective, bookish boy, obsessed by chess, oblivious to the dangerous, sensual outside world that his twin sister, Berner, desperately explores. Even though we know what's coming (mostly), Dell's layered, iterative portraits of his family deepen the purchase of mystery and hurt. His mother is dignified amid her lost dreams. Most poignant is his father, Bev, slowly and deeply etched, who, in a fatalistic moment, swallows a piece of a jigsaw puzzle, leaving a hole in the picture's sky.
The novel contemplates borders of behavior and decency that, once crossed, bar return. But the novel's second half, Dell's life in Canada, is flat and disengaged. He lives under the care of Arthur Remlinger, described, but rarely seen, with warnings of inevitable peril and danger. It all feels stagy, like a movie treatment rather than the closely felt experiences of a wary, lost teenager.
Dell quotes the art critic John Ruskin, who said "composition is the arrangement of unequal things." One of the early beauties of Canada is Dell's ability to marvel at the small, resonant memories of a life that was taken from him. Once he's out of Montana, however, the oblique Canadian narrative reminds us how oddly bland Dell remains, given the trauma he witnesses and the lonely moral disorder into which he is pulled.
We learn Dell emerged into adulthood just fine, but we never see how, and he barely understands it himself. He is rarely an actor in his own story. Events that should have left him with lingering misgivings and even horror seem barely to register, even with the distance of time. In this tale, we seek a credible sense of hope. What Dell offers are platitudes worthy of a self-help guide, but not a novel from a major voice in American fiction.
GO: Richard Ford appears at Powell's City of Books, 1005 W Burnside St., 228-4651, on Sunday, June 3. 4 pm, Free.