They were careless people, Tom and Daisy--they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into ... their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.
--F. Scott Fitzgerald
(FROM MY BLOG) My tastes in books are peculiar and inconsistent. I don't generally read "best sellers," including those blockbusters that appear on the front page of the New York Times book section. Not out of some misplaced form of snobbishness, but simply because they rarely sound that interesting or connected to anything that makes sense in my own life.
But when I read last Sunday's front page review of Richard Ford's Canada, and then re-read the review, I decided to squander 13 bucks and download the book onto Kindle. I've spent the days since then traveling to, relaxing in, and returning from visits with relatives in Sonoma. But when I wasn't visiting, I was engrossed in Canada, which I finished shortly after returning home last night.
I'm not going to review the novel. I'm not going to compete with the New York Times reviewer, or with a large number of other competent literary writers for other periodicals. But I owe it to you -- after having told you how strongly the book gripped my attention -- to give some idea, from my personal perspective, of the reasons for its attraction.
The story is narrated in the first person by Dell Parsons. He is a 60-year-old high school teacher, but the events he describes occurred in 1960, when he and his twin sister Berner were 15. Dell, as narrator, pieces his narrative together from his own memories, from an extensive journal that his mother kept, and from newspaper accounts. The result is a book that reads like a richly detailed memoir -- a memory of events that really happened -- not like a novel.
In the first half of the book, Dell and his sister live with their parents in Great Falls, Montana, their family's last stop in the course of a peripatetic life, moving from air base to air base. Their father, an extroverted former USAF officer, is now desperately seeking a new career path. His mother, an extremely introverted fifth grade teacher, has frustrated ambitions to be a writer and poet. Each parent lives in his or her own world, a world that has little contact with Great Falls and its indifferent, if not hostile, residents. Dell's sister is angry, depressed, restless -- an adolescent. Dell is quiet, studious, detached -- and appears closer to 12 in age, emotionally, than to 15.
Incidentally, the book is one of the great American debunkings of the supposed joys of growing up in a small town. The Great Falls chamber of commerce should sue.
Dell's father, after a number of shady enterprises, ends up owing some money to some unsympathetic and possibly dangerous local Indians. In order to repay the debt, he decides to commit the perfect crime, robbing a North Dakota bank of $2,500 and then fading into the supposed anonymity of the open West. It takes but a matter of days for him to be arrested, together with his wife who drove the get-away car. Both go to prison, his sister runs off to California, and Dell -- alone and friendless -- is taken by his mother's sympathetic acquaintance across the border to a small town in Saskatchewan to avoid "internment" in a Montana state orphanage.
Thus ends the first half of this 462-page novel. Until this point, I had been puzzled by the book's title.
In Part Two, in Canada, Dell ends up in an isolated, miniscule, Saskatchewan prairie town, working at a rustic hotel that provides lodging for wild goose hunters, a hotel that's owned by an enigmatic, vaguely sinister, Gatsby-esque former Harvard student. The plot thickens. The owner has a past and problems of his own. Dell gains experience and takes a few first steps toward self-confidence, murders are committed, and the boy finds new reasons to ponder the workings of the human heart. A friendly woman helps Dell slip out of town and head off to Winnipeg, where he once more -- and with relief -- picks up his high school education.
The book ends with a short "Part Three," an epilogue that pulls together some of the story's strings and brings Dell's life up to the present. Dell, now a Canadian and a school teacher in Ontario, has a final meeting with his dying sister -- a woman who, after running away from home, has led an eventful, unstructured, meaningless, and unhappy life. She is relieved to learn -- at the end -- that her twin's life, at least, has been happy. Dell wonders to himself whether it actually has been.
So much for the plot. The plot is absorbing, despite (partly because of?) the narrator's habit of constantly warning his reader of future events as he reminisces. We thus know of major plot developments before we reach them in the story -- we're just not sure how we'll get there.
The book is less about the plot, however, than about Dell's perception of the world and his "education" -- regardless of whether we feel it to be useful or functional education -- as he gains experience. Dell, as a boy, is a seeker after knowledge, even if indifferently educated through no fault of his own, and his introversion inclines him to seek understanding of the strange universe in which he has been raised and in which he finds himself. As a more sophisticated 60-year-old man, through whom his teenaged self speaks to us, Dell's quest for understanding continues.
Why did his father, seemingly a normal human being, turn to crime as the only solution to a rather small financial problem? Why did his mother -- who strongly opposed the robbery, and who had little respect for her husband -- assist her husband, dooming herself to prison and suicide? Why did his parents show so little concern for the problems facing their children, both before and after they had formulated their plans for the robbery? The questions seem unanswerable to Dell; he can only speculate.
[B]ecause very few people do rob banks, it only makes sense that the few who do it are destined for it, no matter what they believe about themselves or how they were raised. I find it impossible not to think this way, because the sense of tragedy would otherwise be overpowering to me. Though it's an odd thing to believe about your parents -- that all along they've been the kind of people criminals come from. It's like a miracle in reverse.
It is ruminations like these that render Canada more than simply a tale of growing up with wacko parents in Montana. They convert the somewhat melodramatic plot into something darkly philosophical, something almost Dostoevskian.
Dell recalls the look in his father's eyes shortly before the robbery, a new look, the look perhaps of the man -- a criminal --that he had always been, but that was only now finally coming to light.
I've seen this phenomenon in the faces of other men -- homeless men, men sprawled on the pavement ... -- I've seen the remnants of who they almost succeeded in being but failed to be, before becoming themselves. It's a theory of destiny and character I don't like or want to believe in. But it's there in me like a hard understory. I don't, in fact, ever see such a ruined man without saying silently to myself: There's my father. My father is that man. I used to know him.
Canada is a beautifully written book, told in a cadenced English that is both formal and, at times, slightly ungrammatical. Or perhaps, more accurately, idiosyncratically grammatical. Like a combination of the speech patterns of the educated English teacher who describes and analyzes the formative events of his life, and the young boy, articulate but still feeling his way, through whom the narrator speaks.
In its telling and in its conclusion, Dell's story is a somewhat hopeful story, somewhat hopeful and a bit optimistic in the same sense as David Copperfield relates a horrific tale that is somewhat hopeful and a bit optimistic. And yet we are left disturbed by the ease with which lives, both young and not so young, can be ruined or crippled by one simple, careless decision, a decision not carefully thought through at the time, and at the difficulty we all have in reconstructing our own pasts, and in understanding the people and events that have made us the individuals we are today.