Some parents screw their kids up incrementally. Bev and Neeva Parsons manage to cram a life's worth of trauma into a matter of days during the summer of 1960.
The couple's misadventures are told by their son Dell in "Canada," Richard Ford's 10th book.
The hapless father, Bev ("He never conceded that Beverly was a woman's name in most people's minds"), and the bright but empathy-bereft Neeva dominate the first half of a riveting tale of lost innocence.
The saga begins with the bank robbery Bev sees as his salvation from debt incurred through an ill-gotten business venture.
He enlists Neeva to drive the getaway car. The scheme culminates in a quick arrest that effectively turns Dell and his twin sister, Berner, into 15-year-old orphans.
"Leading up to then, time had been almost seamless, the durable order of family life," Dell says. "Even now I can sometimes think the next two days didn't happen, or that I dreamed them, or misremembered them. Though it's wrong to wish away even bad events, as if you could have ever found your way to the present by any other means."
The durable order of family life disappears entirely in the second half of a book that transports Dell from the simple but familiar home he shared with his parents and sister in Great Falls, Mont., to a pair of desolate Saskatchewan prairie towns -- one as dreary as the next.
There, Dell falls under the "care" of a cross-dresser and a ne'er-do-well with a mysterious past. Petrified and abruptly deposited in a country he knows nothing about, Dell's dream of joining the Great Falls chess team gives way to abject survival.
Ford excels on a canvas that lends itself to sparse, weighted dialogue and observation. Tempered by fear and violence, his Canadian outback is a place where nothing seemed "reasonable or logical, based on what anyone would believe they knew about the world."
Dell Parsons bears little emotional connection to Frank Bascombe, the self-absorbed protagonist at the center of the epic trilogy "The Sportswriter," "Independence Day" (the first book awarded the Pulitzer Prize and PEN/Faulkner Award in the same year) and "The Lay of the Land." In 2005, Ford received the St. Louis Literary Award for his body of work.
Ford forges an irresistible connection between the reader and a narrator who at one point is counseled to "pay attention to the present. Don't rule parts out, and be sure you've always got something you don't mind losing. That's important."
Winsome, complex and gritty, Dell represents the quintessential voice of one of the best American novelists of our time.
"Canada" is Ford's first appearance on the new-book shelf in six years.
In every way, it was worth the wait.
A novel by Richard Ford
Published by Ecco, 420 pages, $27.99