Most people who have heard about Richard Ford's latest novel, Canada, have heard about the opening lines:
First, I'll tell about the robbery our parents committed. Then about the murders, which happened later. ... 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. They were just regular -- although, of course, that kind of thinking became null and void the moment they did rob a bank.
There is something about the arrangement of those words, the word choice, the voice, that draws me in like few books have since the glorious, Whitmanesque opening of Don DeLillo's Underworld:
He speaks in your voice, American, and there's a shine in his eye that's halfway hopeful.Yet in writing about an American who ends up in Canada, it is neither American nor Canadian literature to which Ford connects. Rather, it is Thomas Hardy, that early modernist, that poet who saw the end of the Victorian age, and his man who throws away his greatest treasures, gains power and returns to nothing -- Michael Henchard in The Mayor of Casterbridge -- to which Ford connects.
Henchard makes a horrible decision that comes back to haunt him. It is not fate that does him in. Instead, it is his own character that leads him to make his horrible decision and, because he is more than a one-note character, leads him to realize the depth of what he has done. This self-realization is what makes his story a tragedy.
Dell Parsons writes from the vantage point of approaching retirement about the events of his 15th year. He and his twin sister, Berner, who is nothing like him in looks or temperment, live with their parents, who also are nothing alike. They are stuck in Great Falls, Montana, in 1960, a few years after their father, Bev, has retired from the Air Force.
He is a big, friendly Alabaman who isn't good at selling cars or ranches. He is even worse at trying to be the middle man in a scheme in which Indians steal cattle that is sold to a head waiter on the Great Northern Railroad. The scheme is based on one that failed at the base. And when Bev is put in the middle of this failed scheme, and needs to find some cash, fast, to make some payoffs, he decides to rob a bank.