Borderline decisions

“There is always one moment in childhood,” Graham Greene wrote, “when the door opens and lets the future in.” Or as Richard Ford’s narrator Dell Parsons, now a 66-year-old teacher looking back to the events of his 15th year says more specifically, “First I’ll tell about the robbery our parents committed. Then about the murders, which happened later.” And so we plunge into Montana and Saskatchewan in 1960, no neon but plenty of noir, Ford’s most masterful and haunting fiction yet.

Dell and his family — twin sister Berner, parents Bev and Neeva — are in Great Falls because an assignment there was Bev’s last stop in the postwar Air Force. Charming if superficial, he decides to sell new cars, then used cars, then land, then stolen beef. Unbridled optimism is the phrase used so often to describe postwar America, and the introspection-challenged Bev buys right into it.

When the beef scheme fails, he decides to rob a bank. Neeva knows better, but she goes along for the ride (the first of many actual and symbolic borders crossed in this border-haunted novel) into neighboring North Dakota where Bev is sure they won’t be recognized. They return alive but are quickly imprisoned. Berner and Dell are left alone, and Berner walks away one morning rather than be inducted into foster care.

Neeva had planned for her friend Mildred Remlinger to take her children across the border into Saskatchewan to stay with Mildred’s brother in a bleak hotel in bleak Fort Royal. Dell goes alone to become a virtual indentured servant to the brother, the Gatsbylike Arthur Remlinger. AR as he is called is a good-looking, Harvard educated American obviously in Canada for the same reason Dell is: something happened, and he can’t go back home. Charley Quarters, the man who works with him is a tall dwarf who wears a woman’s rhinestone barrette, suggestive of how topsy-turvy Dell’s world has become.

AR is a great believer in order and system, although he alternates between ignoring Dell and emanating a need for a father-son connection with him. There’s an absence about him, echoed in the lonely town itself with its empty grain elevator, abandoned railroad track. We feel the emptiness of the prairie, taste the dust from the grain trucks.

Dell, on first arrival, is still a tourist in the adult world, wondering where he’s going to school, not realizing how far he’s come from childhood, from innocence. He’s set up in a shack four miles from the hotel where he works daily, cleaning up the rooms abandoned by salesmen and truck drivers and men who work oil rigs. Charley teaches Dell how to prepare for the game hunters who show up in the fall.

The considerable violence, in AR and in the sparse town, is deep below the surface of Dell’s awareness, of his haunting narrative voice, of his growing understanding of his great abandonment in Montana and the small daily abandonments of his new and contingent home across so many borders.

Ford is best known for one of the neatest hat tricks in recent literary history, the Frank Bascombe trilogy, The Sportswriter, Independence Day and The Lay of the Land. Canada is more reminiscent in tone of Ford’s short story collection Rock Springs, and shares with his novel Wildlife a setting in 1960 Great Falls and the yearning of a son for a careless father.

Dell gets mothering. Sensing the bank robbery would fail, his mother had made plans to get her children into Canada. Driving into Canada, Mildred tells him to try to live in the present. After the murders, Florence, AR’s sometime mistress, eases him into a more or less normal life with her relatives in Winnipeg. They are more helpful than the young Dell can realize.

What he lacks is a father, and what he gets instead is Charley Quarters who advises him not to hitchhike: “Canadians, he said, didn’t believe in hitchhiking and would assume I was a criminal or else an Indian and possibly try to run me over.” Part Indian himself, Charley is at home in the brutal natural world in a way Dell, raised an outsider in the artificiality of a series of Air Force bases, will never be. And so Dell grows into his cobbled-together life, longing for an irretrievable home with the undying ache of an immigrant.

Betsy Willeford is a writer in Miami.