Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 21 September 2014

The dark underbelly of the Canadian dream

'there is always one moment in childhood when the door opens and lets the future in". That celebrated quote may have been written by a profoundly English novelist, Graham Greene, but it could also serve as an epigraph to an entire sector of American fiction - beginning with Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn - in which childhood is portrayed as that juncture in life when the mythic is inevitably corrupted by harsher realities.

Richard Ford's arresting new novel is - on one level - an intriguing variation on this US Childhood Gets Derailed theme.

We are in the 1950s, a moment when every US male had the alleged ability to carve out a well-upholstered existence for his family.

Unless, of course, you happen to be Bev Parsons. He's a Southern boy from that most redneck corner of Dixie, Alabama; charming, superficially hyper-positive, always trying to latch on to the next get-rich-quick scheme.

His wife, Neeva, could not be more tonally different from her good-ol'-boy husband. She's Jewish, bookish, withdrawn.

It is clear to their twins, daughter Berner and son Dell, that their parents' marriage is troubled.

Their father's fortunes as a car salesman are on the skids. In that great American tradition of always heading out of town to a new destination when financial failure hits, the family ends up amid the lonely epic grandeur of Montana - Great Falls, just on the edge of the Rockies.

Then an illegal fast-buck scheme involving pilfered meat goes seriously wrong and leaves Bev seriously in debt to his Native American fellow-schemers.

Threats of bodily harm are rendered. Money must be found. Bev and Neeva decide there is only one way out: robbing a bank. They choose a bank in a small town in that most desolate of American terrains, North Dakota.

They are eventually caught and hauled off to jail. Berner vanishes for points further west to meet her boyfriend. And before Dell can be made a ward of state, his aunt Mildred transports him to isolated Saskatchewan.

Once in Canada, events turn even stranger, as Mildred leaves Dell in the clutches of her brother Arthur, who runs a hotel in the middle of nowhere.

As Dell finds himself in a Dickensian-on-the-Prairies world of hard labour and profound isolation, details emerge about Arthur - a man whose presence in Canada has its antecedents in malfeasance south of the border. At first Canada is a puzzling book, especially as Dell the 15-year-old narrator has a habit of repeating Blinding Glimpses of the Obvious. But then, as this highly original voice begins to take hold, you find yourself drawn into Ford's uneasy, ever-skewed world. It's a world which speaks volumes about the reclusiveness and violence at the heart of the American experience - which, like the solitary terrain, engulfs those who try to find a sense of self or meaning amid its hard-scrabble vacuity.

Audacious in its narrative technique (observe Ford's frequent use of short chapters, his varied pacing, the way he never rushes any plot points, and allows the story to unfold in its own enigmatic way), Canada grips and haunts.

Yet it does so by frequently playing against narrative expectations and maintaining an elliptical tone that still keeps you hooked.

Ford makes you ponder so deeply the way that none of us can fathom life's inherent strangeness.

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