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Richard Ford's 'Canada' is a tragedy in three acts

"Canada" is an American tragedy. Pulitzer Prize-winning fiction writer Richard Ford's first novel in six years conveys both the vast sweep of the interior lowlands that stretch from Mexico to the American Great Plains and up through Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba, and the mundane but tectonic faults, mostly in DNA and bad ideas, that, on those plains and elsewhere, shape the course of human lives.

While "tragedy" comes from the Greek "tragoidia," meaning "goat-song," it is the cries of geese sifting over wheat fields that are the soundtrack for this meticulous, elegiac novel. In keeping with its archetypal scope and themes, "Canada" echoes the narrative shapes of both Greek "tragoidia," and classic American movie Westerns. There are both heroically flawed characters and a chorus, and a kind of high noon showdown at the novel's heart.

There's also a ghostly aura of "The Great Gatsby" here, so Ford's novel has patrician DNA, speaking of genes, in spite of his designation as an avatar of "K-Mart realism" -- an '80s aesthetic linked to writers such as Raymond Carver and Bobbie Ann Mason. Certainly Ford like the others is too complex to be so summarily distilled. And, as is true of his previous books such as "Independence Day" -- first novel to win both the PEN/Faulkner Award and the Pulitzer Prize -- "Canada" doesn't fit into any easy summation.

"Canada" is set in Great Falls, Mont., and the fictitious towns of Partreau and Fort Royal, Saskatchewan, in 1960. Part 1 is the story of Dell and his sister, Berner, 15, and their parents, Bev and Neva, 32 and 34; Part 2 focuses on Dell and the enigmatic "AR," Arthur Remlinger, the man with whom Dell is sent to live after the catastrophe of Part 1.

In both parts, events that occur in seconds unbalance lives for decades, in radiating waves the energy of which seemingly never dissipates, but rather is only managed better, or not, by those it rocks. Some kind of equilibrium is found, in Part 3, when the older Dell has lunch with his sister, terminally ill with cancer, in 2010 after the lives they have led instead of the lives they thought they would lead.

The strong voice telling the story is the adult Dell: a damaged 66-year-old teacher entering retirement as a Canadian citizen. Part 1 begins, "First I'll tell about the robbery our parents committed. Then about the murders, which happened later. The robbery is the more important part, since it served to set my and my sister's lives on the courses they eventually followed. Nothing would make complete sense without that being told first."

Dell's Air Force bombardier father, the handsome, charismatic Bev Parsons, 32, is discharged from the Air Force in Montana under an omen of cloudy circumstances. Dell's mother Neeva, 34, is a smart, literate, lost woman, who'd given up her plan to be a college teacher when she became pregnant after one "date" with Bev. The pregnancy turned out to be fraternal twins, Dell and his sister Berner.

Things begin to unravel after Dell's discharge, and Dell painstakingly observes his parents' complex reactions to circumstance, and each other, and life. Dell and his sister can only know so much, however, just kids. And what they don't know does indeed hurt them. Mom and dad go away for a night, and then when they come back the house gets weirder than before, as does the neighborhood. Then Dell sleepily gets up to go to the bathroom one late night and finds his father up, "alone, at the card table in front of his Niagara Falls jigsaw puzzle spread out like a meal in front of him."

His father does an old trick with a puzzle piece, putting it in his mouth and pretending to chew and swallow, with Dell thinking it's still in his hand. But it's not. "He pointed to his belly with his finger. 'Right down about there,' he said and poked himself and looked down. 'It's not a trick every time. That's the magician's secret.' "

The next morning, a Sunday, Bev and Neeva are arrested for robbing a North Dakota bank, getting away with the heartbreaking sum of $2,500. Neeva, foreseeing the future, told the kids if something happened to not leave the house: It turns out that she had found someone willing to help keep them out of the Montana foster care system. Within days of the arrest, Berner runs away and only Dell is still home when the sturdy woman, a nurse, arrives to, it turns out, drive Dell to stay with her brother, Arthur Remlinger, "AR," who owns the tiny, beat hotel in the Saskatchewan town of Fort Royal.

Part 2 documents the time, only a few months, from the robbery to the other climactic event foretold in the novel's opening. AR is a Gatsby-like anomaly in the middle-of-nowhere that is Fort Royal -- a blond and elegant Harvard-educated American, smart but dark and dragging a past, and someone who enters the dingy "bar" of his hotel to chat up the goose hunters and truck drivers "dressed like an English duke or a baron who'd been out walking his estate and come in for a whiskey."

AR is a man trying to demonstrate that mistake and accident can be overcome by will and a belief in an order, like chess, underlying the scrim of randomness and cruelty that might seem to rule lives. But in this AR fails, and Dell is forced to be complicit in his failure, a 15-year-old forced to bury the bodies along with whatever was left of his hope and youth.

F. Scott Fitzgerald famously wrote, "there are no second acts in American life." "Canada" limns the long arcs of lives wrenched like limbs from their sockets and shows that such lives find ways to move afterward, limping or halting, but continuing to move, to find balance on treacherous ground, and to understand that good does exist, but is not easy or simple. Ford's flinty clarity strikes sparks of insight and offers light for the darknesses of the human condition.

Ed Taylor is a freelance writer and critic.

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Canada

By Richard Ford

Ecco

432 pages, $26.99 (availableMay 22)