June 13 2012 12:00 AM

More than 20 years after he started it, Richard Ford unveils 'Canada'


The hook: Joyce, Salinger, Twain, Vonnegut, Dickens — these are all authors we know by their last names. Each was also a master of the first line. Richard Ford’s “Canada” is likely to get “Ford” added to that pantheon of literary geniuses. Its stark opening sentences: “First, I’ll tell you about the robbery our parents committed. Then about the murders” 

But, “anyone can write a hook,” as Ford pointed out in a recent phone interview from Minneapolis as he was waiting to do a book signing. “The real onus is when you write a sentence like that, you have to follow it right up.”

That he did. Early reviews of “Canada” have called it a “literary masterpiece” and an “extraordinary new novel.”

Ford will tell you that the novel is not new. His latest book comes six years after “The Lay of the Land,” which was the final installment of the Frank Bascombe trilogy that included “The Sportswriter” (1986) and the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Independence Day” (1995). But “Canada” has roots going back more than two decades.

“I started the novel in 1989, which is to say I wrote 20 pages,” Ford said. “Things got in the way and I just didn’t write it.”

The simple title belies the sophisticated and mature writing that is contained within the 418-page book, which is an incomparable retelling of a common literary premise of a young man’s adventure. “Canada” mixes a coming-of-age story with an unusual Robinson-Crusoe-set-adrift theme.

Ford said he had to fight for the title “Canada,” something he said he called it from the very beginning. The book, written from the point of view of the 16-year-old Dell, tells the story of a 1960s family in Great Falls, Mont. They seem quite normal, until the day the parents inexplicably rob a bank. The crime leads to their arrest and the abandonment of Dell and his twin sister, Berner. The novel sees Dell, at his mother’s request, separated from Berner and spirited off to Canada. Once in Canada, Dell is placed with an expatriate American whose unsavory past follows him to Canada, leading to another crisis.

Ford, a Michigan State University graduate, has always been what he calls “a copious note-taker,” who uses his research to compose his novels. Ford said by the time he began writing “Canada,” he had thousands of pages of notes.

“I had a huge notebook. It is very onerous clerically, but it’s the way I figured out how I had to compose a book.”

Vast amounts of material in the notebook contain notes he compiled on one of the many trips he made to Saskatchewan, the site of the action in the book’s second half. The first half is set in the area around Great Falls, where Ford and his spouse, Kristina, once lived and have often visited.

He made his first trip to Saskatchewan in the mid-1980s for goose hunting, and he said once he had decided to write the book he returned several times, driving around and dictating notes. There are long passages in the book about the area’s geography and the simple beauty of place, along with luxurious descriptions of hunting trips. Hunting is Ford’s first love, after Kristina.

“Once I sat down to write the book, I was able to simulate a huge amount of material,” Ford said. “I don’t trust my memory.”

That may be why his prose is at such a high level when he writes about the vast landscapes of the American West and Canada. Ford avoids flowery, sentimental descriptions, opting instead for a voice that is straightforward and purposely flat, but almost uncannily beautiful in its simplicity.

It’s almost as if he draws from the natural world of the Wallace Stegner or Peter Matthiessen, while mixing Salinger and Twain into Dell’s description of his everyday world.

Early readers of Ford will recognize the basic plot of “Canada” from the short story “Optimist,” which first appeared in Esquire Magazine. It was about another young man who found his world turned upside down when his father killed a man. 

But beyond just the pure beauty of the written word, Ford returns to one of his recurring themes, fate, and how it intervenes in life. He tells about his own youth growing up in Mississippi, stealing cars, taking joyrides and being involved in a lot of petty crimes. He and a friend were “stealing for thrills,” he said, and he ended up in juvenile detention when fate, in the form of his father’s death, intervened.  It was then his mother bluntly told him to “change”— she couldn’t take care of him anymore.

“That’s my general view of life and what happens to us. We have no control of what happens, but we have control over what we do. All that really matters is how we react.”

That’s the story he tells so wonderfully in “Canada,” showing how the father Bev, the mother Neeva and the twins react to circumstances swirling around them. “That’s why I give away the bank robbery and the murders and make the book be about what happens after that,” he said.

Ford said he once again crossed paths with fate a few years ago in the form of a cancer scare. “I dodged a bullet. It changed the way I conducted my life.”

The author said his novel also has two distinct divisions (life in Great Falls and life in Canada) that show how fate causes abrupt changes. “It’s what I intended, the abrupt before and after.”

He said the most difficult part in writing the book was “finding a way to mingle the intelligence and vocabulary of an older man, but make the younger boy’s (voice) predominant.” He has accomplished that task with ease.