He’s well known, of course, for his Frank Bascombe trilogy, whose second volume, “Independence Day,” won the PEN/Faulkner Award and the Pulitzer Prize. As rich and durable as John Updike’s Rabbit quartet and Philip Roth’s Zuckerman series, the Bascombe novels are an insightful chronicle of middle-class life, infused with the economic and cultural anxieties of the late 20th century.
Now, Ford has left the suburbs of New Jersey two thousand miles away and delivered his most elegiac and profound book. “Canada” may strike recent fans as a departure, but it’s actually a return to the plains of his first celebrated story collection, “Rock Springs” (1987). Here in Great Falls, Mont., the author lays out a tale of one unexceptional family’s disintegration.
“First, I’ll tell about the robbery our parents committed. Then about the murders, which happened later.”
That unguarded opening comes from Dell Parsons, an English teacher on the eve of retirement. He’s looking back, without bitterness, at the calamitous events of his adolescence 50 years ago. He speaks in sentences that waver between unvarnished confession and life-tested judgments. There’s something unnerving about Dell’s calm, modulated voice, but the more he tells us, the more his temperament seems like a healthy response to traumas that would bury a weaker man.
The story begins when Dell and his twin sister, Berner, are 15, living an isolated life in a town that offers them no extended family or friends. Their mother is an intense, skeptical woman, whose Polish-Jewish background accentuates her alienation. Their handsome Southern father never finds stable work after leaving the Air Force in 1960, but he expects the children to share his boundless optimism. He tries selling cars, then land, while dealing in stolen beef on the side — “a small, penny-ante scheme” that allows him to pretend he’s not really a crook.
Ford can be sympathetic and yet clear-eyed about the limits of these poor, mismatched people. His delineation of their characters is insistent without seeming relentless, moving further and further into the conflicted desires and misimpressions that motivate them. In a rented house riven by silent tensions and disappointments, Berner grows morose and sexually reckless; Dell, always the earnest student, throws himself into the study of chess and bees — miniature worlds that provide the fixed, predictable roles he craves.
When their father runs afoul of some Indian thugs and needs $2,000 fast, he concocts a ridiculous plan to hold up a bank, a decision that eventually sends him and his wife to jail and thrusts Berner and Dell into a world that has no use for them. After reading “Canada,” you will never hear about a convicted criminal without considering the invisible children whose lives have been scrambled in ways they can’t possibly understand.