Pacific Rim Review of Books

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Racine on the Prairie: Richard Ford’s Canada

review by Richard Wirick

Richard Ford
HarperCollins (Ecco)
446 Pages

Flying over the Great Plains to visit my sister in the Twin Cities, the far fields of both Dakotas stretch out in hundreds of miles of unruffled tableland, the gold and grey and russet of wheat fields stone-still from this altitude but undulating to their walkers and drivers in whatever breezes the passes allow. My perspective is a vista of breadth, a land unto itself that stands apart from what the ground observer sees: an ocean of crops unrivalled by any landscape save perhaps for the Asian steppes. You could say we inhabit different lands—-the walker and the flyer—-and that we could cross this border of altitude to see the diversity of the same terrain from the other’s person’s point of vision.

This is a land Richard Ford knows well (his third novel, Wildlife, was placed here), and serves as the setting of his newest novel, the first since his groundbreaking and highly acclaimed Bascombe trilogy. The year is 1960. America has a young, inspiring President, a robust economy, and the menace of Soviet missles far away but never out of mind. (Notably, many of their U.S. Army counterparts lay in silos beneath this unassuming ground.)

A family of four lives a relatively uneventful life in the Montana railroad and farming city of Great Falls. The father is one of those handsome Centurions whose life reached its apogee during his recent military service. He wears his still name-tagged but bar-stripped jumpsuit as a reminder of days he bird dogged girls, drank half-pints of Yellowstone bourbon, and—-descending from year to feckless year in his early thirties—didn’t have rent to pay and two children to raise. His wife is an Upper West Side intellectual, having married below her station but seeing something inspiring and apocryphal and incipiently opportunity-providing in this endless nothingness. She is also at once a doting and somewhat detached mother.

The narrator is their adolescent son, one of two twins, who sees a queasy chaos in this benighted grassland, and attempts to make it cohere with pattern focused hobbies like chess and beekeeping. He craves a pattern for the wheat-sea’s formlessness, beating back with games and strategies the lassitude that may doom him to being one of Cather’s ‘Obscure destinies.’

Their father sells cars but sweetens his income with gray market [read: stolen] sides of beef slaughtered and smuggled by local Indians. When he gets deep in hock with them and is warned to make good if he values the safety of his family, he hatches a plan to rob a bank just across the state line in even less hospitable North Dakota. He and the wife do just that, are trailed and reported and arrested; not to worry, this is all unspooled in the first pages of the book. Much of the novel then consists of the son Dell’s ruminations of what happened, what could or should have happened, and on the terrifying force and effect of sudden, unforeseeable shifts in fortune—-the razor’s edge between psychic peace and the make-do backwash we flounder in just after catastrophe.

Before the parents are tried and sentenced to their North Dakota penitentiary bids, Dell’s sister runs off to San Francisco and the boy is transported—before he can be adjudged a ward of the state—to live with his mother’s relative’s relative in far Northern Saskatchewan. Here, the metaphorical underpinnings of the book—-crossing borders, leaping boundaries—-comes to its acme, and the narrator wonders at his fate and its possible directions of resolve. He does all this thinking as a sort of child slave, having ben apprenticed to a jack of all trades named Remlinger, a cunning American exile whose shady past parallels those of Dell’s parents, the figures who got caught, whose couldn’t get away.

Remlinger’s own schemes, and what caused him to come to rest as a flim-flam man and Dell’s rescuer, unfold in an ultimately cumbersome wrap-up that we need not go into here. What fascinates about the book is its unique style, and its skillful characterizations not only of people, but, much like in Hardy, the harsh landscape in which they find (or send) themselves.
Dell speaks with a single voice, but with two vocalizations, ranging, sometimes in the space of a single page, between the guileless view of an astonished 13-year-old and that of the more somber, philosophical register of the actual writer of the narrative, the much older Dell and Ford’s diffidently exploring, morally Socratic stand-in. The effect is dazzling, with the man-child’s unassuming, flatly descriptive major chords colored deftly by the minor notes of the summarizing elder. This is a prairie of the imagination, with bold columns of confident sun tempered by shadows of doubt, by the constant positing of counterfactuals and what might have been if just a different road—-never mind the ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ one—-had been taken through the mirage-making, dizzying grasses. Indeed, Dell is something like the boy narrator of Chekhov’s great novella ‘The Steppe’—-young enough to still appreciate and invest in his will, old enough to know the terrible constraints of external circumstance.

The second stylistic device is Ford’s ability to conjure life-changing, fate-sealing instants with the gentle voice of a master questioner, the constantly self-searching doubter and then just as effective re-affirmer of his conjectures. There is controversy with the self, but there are no gnarled, edgy sounds scraping up against the singing lines here. There is only the mellifluous, smooth, utterly diffident sub-speech of the inquisitor constantly interrogating himself. Dell old and young is a whispering, mellowed Hamlet. The debates with himself, their transcendental atmospherics, make Ford the heir to two other masters of this style—-Peter Taylor and especially Robert Maxwell (whose influence he stresses in the acknowledgments.)

The Maxwell comparison is the highest compliment I can pay to a writer. And Canada may be Ford’s best book yet, this coming from someone who regards his Bascombe Trilogy, along with Updike’s Rabbit novels, as the chronicles that readers in one hundred, two hundred years will consult to see how we lived, to feel our texture as a society, and to understand what borders we were given to cross.

Richard Wirick is the author of the novel One Hundred Siberian Postcards (Telegraph Books). He has been published in Paris Review and The Nation. He practices law in Los Angeles.