The Argument: Why is quintessentially American writer Richard Ford’s new novel about Canada?

The Argument: Why is quintessentially American writer Richard Ford’s new novel about Canada?

The day after George W. Bush was re-elected president, the American novelist Richard Ford got in his car and drove across the border to Saskatchewan from Montana. He did not come in search of political asylum—something many American liberal intellectuals loudly and half-jokingly yearned for that day—but for a flu shot, which his U.S. health care provider had deemed him “not old enough or sick enough to merit.”

Ford had made the journey north often enough, but this time it was different. “I crossed that border, and I just felt the world lift off my shoulders,” he says. “I realized there was something about Canada that was very established as good in my mind.” The burden of being American—of being from a politically fractious, sometimes violent place—suddenly vanished. “For many Americans, Canada has long been seen as a place of refuge.”

That momentary sense of relief was the germ for his latest novel, Canada, which he launches this month at the TIFF Bell Lightbox as part of this year’s Luminato festival. It tells the story of Dell Parsons, a teenage boy living in Montana in the late 1950s until his fast-talking father and soft-spoken mother decide to rob a bank to pay off some bad debts. His parents are arrested and thrown in jail, his twin sister takes off for California, and Mildred, a family friend, whisks Dell across the border to Saskatchewan before he can be made a ward of the state. Canada, according to Mildred, “was bigger than America, though it was mostly empty and inhospitable and covered with ice much of the time.”

In Saskatchewan, Dell is deposited into the care of a charismatic man named Arthur Remlinger, another American who has fled to Canada to escape his dark, violent past. Dell tries to make the best of things in his new life and stay out of trouble, but gets tangled up in Remlinger’s attempts to conceal the bad deeds he committed in his previous life. Those efforts fail, and Dell becomes an accomplice to a brutal, cold-blooded murder. He’s whisked out of town and put on a bus to Winnipeg. Though he’s on the run once again, he ultimately decides to stay in Canada and even manages to find a kind of peace.

Ford is as American as they come. Born and raised in Mississippi, he has lived all over the U.S. and now calls Maine home. Literary connoisseurs consider him one of the greatest living American writers, though he lacks the superstar status that leads to multiple film adaptations and Nobel Prize speculation. He is neither a macho hyper-producer like Philip Roth nor a muscular experimentalist like Don DeLillo. In his own quietly determined way, he has carved out a niche mapping the psyche of the sexually and spiritually restless middle-aged male.

The men Ford writes about are, by turns, intelligent, emotionally befuddled, taciturn, stoic and mercurial, the sort of men who occasionally cause great harm, though they never set out with malicious intent. Men who hope optimism will see them through even when self-awareness fails them. Flawed, soulful, searching men—not good guys, exactly, but getting there. Men like Dell or Frank Bascombe, the former sportswriter at the heart of a trio of novels that includes 1996’s Independence Day, for which Ford won both the Pulitzer and the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, the first novel to achieve that double feat.

Canada represents a significant departure for Ford. While plenty of terrible stuff happens in the book, there are also generous lashings of redemption. Unlike most of Ford’s protagonists, who struggle from one moral grey zone to the next, Dell is granted clemency from the trauma of his past. Ford says it was gratifying to write a book in which goodness prevails (albeit in the most oblique way), and that much of this goodness is bound up with the decency of Canada itself.

The idea that Ford would choose to view his country through the prism of ours seems flattering at first, but part of his attraction to our country, he admits, was purely semantic. “I liked the word Canada,” he says. “It has a certain suppleness. I wanted to take that word and see where it would go.” In the novel, Ford cleaves to the notion that as a nation and a people we Canadians are decent, kind, functional and calm—essentially good. Decency is not a bad thing to be saddled with—except when it’s seen as synonymous with blandness. (As a Canadian expat in England, I encounter this perception on an almost daily basis, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t occasionally wish that non-Canadians reflexively assumed I was witty, dangerous or good
in bed.)

Ford knows his book may irritate some Canadian readers who see their homeland as more than just America’s boring northern neighbour. He makes clear, however, that he didn’t exactly come up with these ideas about our country all by himself: “The biggest generalizations about Canada I usually hear from Canadians themselves.” In the end, he says, “There’s almost nothing I can say that won’t piss
Canadians off.”

Ford also pleads innocent to the suggestion that he’s trying to start a literary turf war. Dell, after all, was the same handle Alice Munro chose for the juvenile narrator of her great coming-of-age story Lives of Girls and Women. “If I was going to steal something from Alice Munro,” Ford says, “it would be more than a name.” He did write her a friendly letter once, in response to her story “Miles City, Montana,” telling her she was treading too close to his literary territory. Munro responded by sending a photo of herself in a place Ford had recently written about. “She was just trying to show me. Which I suppose she did.”

by Richard Ford
Launching at the TIFF Bell Lightbox
June 16