It’s tempting to call Richard Ford a writer of place. Beginning with his first novel, 1976’s “A Piece of My Heart,” the 68-year-old author has tended toward the border among landscape, language and character, using setting to help drive his narratives.
Think of Frank Bascombe, who in “The Sportswriter,” “Independence Day” and “The Lay of the Land” drifts across the bland surfaces of New Jersey, seeking not stimulation but a stasis similar to that of the suburbs where he resides. Or the people of Ford’s Montana books, “Rock Springs” and “Wildlife": etched by the stark environment in which they find themselves, staring down the elements of their lives.
It’s as if, Ford wants us to imagine, we live at the mercy of larger forces, forces outside ourselves, forces that determine who we are. And yet, he insists by phone from his home in East Boothbay, Maine, that’s not the case -- or not exactly, anyway.
“Growing up in Mississippi,” he recalls, “and being told that this defined me, set me on a path away from place as generative. When I started writing, I took the Toulouse-Lautrec attitude that place is background scenery. I didn’t want the place I came from to be responsible for me.”
What Ford is getting at is a dual set of burdens: that of Southern history -- "[W]e lived in an absurd racist society,” he told the Paris Review in 1996 -- and of the Southern literary tradition, which, encompassing William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, Eudora Welty, Tennessee Williams and Carson McCullers, left him feeling “there was no place here for me.” With his new novel, “Canada” (Ecco: 420 pp., $27.99), however, he has come to acknowledge that the issue of place is perhaps less clear-cut, more deterministic, than he may have thought.
The book, which takes place primarily in Montana and the Canadian province of Saskatchewan, is a return, of sorts; set in summer and fall 1960, it is narrated by 15-year-old Dale Parsons, who must learn to fend for himself after his parents are arrested for robbing a bank. Dale is of a piece with Joe Brinson, the teenage protagonist of “Wildlife,” whose life too comes unraveled in 1960. (Several of the stories in “Rock Springs” are also set in 1959 or 1960 and involve the travails of adolescent boys.) In that sense, place may be not only geographic but also experiential, a matter of both exterior and interior territory -- although either way, it echoes through.
“ ‘Place means nothing,’ I wrote in ‘Independence Day,’ ” Ford says with a rueful laugh. “I was throwing down a gauntlet. But if I tried to make that true, I will concede now that I may not have been fully successful. Because when I write sentences set in Montana, I write different kinds of sentences. So there must be some generative relationship.”
“Canada” is very much about the interplay of character and landscape, although in this case the primary landscape has to do with family. That’s because Dale, his parents and his twin sister, Berner, are in many ways isolated, a result of the peripatetic nature of his father’s work with the Air Force as well as the family’s status as outsiders, who naturally hold themselves apart. Ford introduces this via Dale’s mother, who prides herself on a skeptical intelligence.
“These were the values that caused her never to want Berner and me to assimilate in the places my father’s Air Force job took us,” he observes early in the novel. “Those places, she felt, would ‘dilute and corrupt’ what was good and important about us and render us stale and ordinary in terms specific to Mississippi, Texas, Michigan, Ohio, places she had low regard for and considered unenlightened.”
Right there, in two straightforward sentences, Ford establishes the central conflict of the novel: between family on the one hand and community on the other -- or, more directly, between personality and place.
Plot, in such a context, is secondary; what’s important is how the characters react. “More than events,” he explains, “I’m interested in consequence. What happens after the big event? That’s when life gets lived.” To make this explicit, he tips off the main dramatic action from the opening lines. “First,” he begins the novel, “I’ll tell about the robbery our parents committed. Then about the murders, which happened later.”
For Ford, the diffusion of narrative tension opens up another, more essential tension -- that of a character coming to resolution with himself. This is the arc Dale traverses throughout “Canada,” and it echoes not just the author’s earlier Montana books but also his Bascombe trilogy, which is all about the process of coming to terms.
“With Dale,” Ford says, “I tried to combine his adult and his childhood voice, to use two vocalizations: a 15-year-old boy and a 65-year-old man.” The point is to show how he’s reckoned with his past, even the parts for which he cannot make amends. “There’s a debt to pay,” Ford goes on, “but there’s also a sense of accepting who you are. That’s happiness, when you’re 65 years old, to make do with what you’re given, to come to a position of assent.”
That’s what Ford has been writing toward for much of his career, going back to “A Piece of My Heart,” which moves between two characters who, he suggests, represent “the two sides of my brain, one sensation and the other intellect.” In “Canada,” though, he’s integrated the impulse in a broader way. As much as Dale recalls Ford’s other Montana adolescents, he’s equally reminiscent of Bascombe, looking back from the second half of his life in a voice equally piercing and reflective.
“What I want to do,” Ford says, “is to get at something like Walter Benjamin’s idea of instruction, to illuminate the struggle of existence. What’s important to Dale is not what he’s been through, so much as his desire to find some purpose. He ends up happy because he has made himself useful.”
This is a traditional definition of art, of fiction: that it should instruct or enlighten us, that it should illuminate something about how we live. Yet at its center is a related notion: that the line between the ordinary and the extraordinary is often a tenuous one.
“To me,” Ford writes, tracing Dale’s parents’ slow drift from one side of the law to the other, “it’s the edging closer to the point of no return that’s fascinating: all along the trip, chatting, sharing confidences, exchanging endearments -- since their life was officially still intact. ... How amazingly far normalcy extends; how you can keep it in sight as if you were on a raft sliding out to sea, the stick of land growing smaller and smaller. ... You notice it, or you don’t notice it. But you’re already too far away, and all is lost.”
That, he claims, is “the heart of the book, that these two experiences exist side by side, that we can always pull back from the line until we cross it.” In a way, it’s a bit of a commonplace, but then, this is part of the novelistic enterprise, as well.
“There’s no such thing as commonplace,” Ford argues, “there’s no such thing as ordinary. What I’ve found is that each thing becomes prologue to something we didn’t expect. I didn’t expect to write again about Montana, but it turned out there was more to say. What I’ve discovered about myself is that I’m a goer-backer” -- and here, he could be talking about Dale, or Bascombe, or any of his characters -- “I’m just a guy who goes back and gets more.”
Richard Ford in conversation
Where: Aloud Series, Los Angeles Central Library’s Mark Taper Auditorium, Los Angeles, 90071
When: 7 p.m. Thursday
More information: lfla.org/aloud/upcoming.php