'First I'll tell about the robbery our parents committed. Then about the murders, which happened later." With those staccato opening sentences, Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Richard Ford ("Independence Day") lights the slow-burning fuse of his ruminative novel, "Canada," the story of a young man's abrupt initiation into the reality of the adult world.
The bank robbery that fractures the family of 15-year-old Dell Parsons in the summer of 1960 and sends him across the border into the vast Canadian prairie is almost comical in its ineptitude. "Common sense should've dictated none of this ever take place. But no one had access to common sense," he recalls. When his parents are quickly arrested, Dell's flight with the aid of his mother's friend propels him into an even more hostile environment.
In Canada, Dell meets a Gatsbyesque character, Arthur Remlinger, who runs a hotel that serves mainly as an outpost for visiting goose hunters, one of those "people with something wrong with them that can be disguised but won't be denied, and which dominates them." A violent act in Remlinger's past is the catalyst for the murders foreshadowed in the novel's opening sentences and to which Dell is a witness.
"Canada" owes its gradually accumulating power to Dell's compelling narrative voice. He tells his story from the perspective of a man now in his mid-60s, a retired high school English teacher who brings to the task the wisdom he's gained over half a century. At times confiding, at others wistful or bewildered, he painstakingly recounts the seismic consequences of the adult decisions that intruded on his young, unremarkable life.
The principal settings of the novel -- Great Falls, Mont., (home to Ford's novel, "Wildlife") and southern Sasketchewan -- are remote both geographically and spiritually from the claustrophobic world of the New Jersey suburbs Ford inhabited in the Frank Bascombe trilogy. There are sister communities here to the desolate towns of Ford's short-story collection, "Rock Springs," with their abandoned grain elevators and crumbling buildings, one of them appearing, to Dell, as "a museum dedicated to the defeat of civilization -- one that had been swept away to flourish elsewhere, or possibly never." The endless expanse of the land is so outsized it seems to overwhelm its dwellers, not least among them Dell, who recognizes he's without power to deflect approaching tragedy and loss.
Over the course of a lifetime, Dell Parsons seeks out connections to help him explain his story's inexplicable events. Abandoning that search, he understands, "is to commit yourself to the waves that toss you and dash you against the rocks of despair." That's as close to a note of hope as Richard Ford comes in this bleak, but strangely beautiful, novel.
Harvey Freedenberg is a freelance reviewer and member of the National Book Critics Circle. He writes from Harrisburg, Pa.