If there’s one things Dell Parsons wants you to know about his parents, it’s that they really didn’t look like bank robbers.
“First I’ll tell about the robbery our parents committed. Then about the murders, which happened later,” Dell says in the indelible opening lines of Pulitzer Prize-winner Richard Ford’s 10th book, Canada.
“Our parents were the least likely two people in the world to rob a bank. They weren’t strange people, not obviously criminals. No one would’ve thought they were destined to end up the way they did,” Dell says. “They were just regular – although, of course, that thinking became null and void the moment they did rob a bank.”
This point is hammered home repeatedly in the first section of “Canada”: “You don’t seem like bank robbers,” one of the policemen that arrests them remarks. “You look like people who’d work in a grocery store.” (One would think that would have helped them in their life of crime, but no.)
“Canada” is about the aftermath of a moment of violence on a normal life, told by a man 50 years distant from the events that upended his existence. It’s a deliberately paced novel that takes its time getting where it’s going, but the author is very sure of his destination.
Dell, his twin sister, Berner, and their parents are living in Montana in 1960, when his dad, Bev, leaves the Air Force after an undistinguished career in which he went from captain to first lieutenant. After trying life as a car salesman, Bev hits on a scheme involving stolen beef, native Americans, and a railway. An inveterate optimist, Bev is sure everything will work out, and is shocked when his erstwhile partners threaten to kill his family if he doesn’t pay them.
Hence, the bank robbery plan. Bev is completely feckless, but, as Berner justly points out, their mother, Neeva, was smart enough to know better. Neeva, however, who fancied herself artistic and destined for greatness, always remained apart, sourly surveying the life she believed she was too good to lead. Of the twins, Berner inherits her bitterness, while Dell is so passive that he makes Sleeping Beauty look like a go-getter.
The first half of “Canada” is like the forlorn cousin of Stewart O’Nan’s lovely “The Odds,” in which an ordinary couple, undone by ordinary life, gives up playing by the rules. “Canada,” however, is not a love story. The second part of the novel moves more into Cormac McCarthy territory.
After they are effectively orphaned, Berner strikes out on her own, while Dell is taken to Saskatchewan by a friend of his mom's and dumped under the not-so-protective wing of the friend’s brother, Arthur Reminger. Reminger fancies himself a great man, and Dell is prepared to take him at his word. Here, Dell’s passive acceptance helps him survive a bleak existence in a shack in a ghost town, ultimately punctuated by those murders, which you’ll remember, “came later.”
Ford takes a low-key approach to even the most violent episodes, and his writing in “Canada” is matter-of-fact in its exactness. He writes the way one of his characters paints, to the befuddlement of the teenage Dell.
“I couldn’t see why this would be a subject for a painting,” Dell says of a picture of the town she’s working on, “since it was right there for anybody to see any time, and wasn’t beautiful.”
The events “Canada” describes aren’t beautiful – Berner got a raw deal, as far as I’m concerned, and there’s an odd bout of incest that comes out of nowhere and leads to nothing. But it stands as one of the most memorably heartbreaking novels of the year.