Several decades ago, the legendary editor Robert Gottlieb playfully assembled a list of imaginary titles with which to launch a doomed publishing house. Topping this anti-bestseller list was Canada: Our Good Neighbor to the North. Richard Ford may or may not have heard this anecdote – Mordecai Richler was fond of deploying it as an indictment of the provincialism of Manhattan publishing – but, either way, one doubts he would have balked at the implied challenge. Ford is, after all, the man who spun a 1,311-page trilogy (The Sportswriter, Independence Day, The Lay of the Land) from several scattered days in the life of a sportswriter-turned-real estate agent in suburban New Jersey. Ford isn’t drawn to histrionics or exotica; he prefers digging into the mundane, the minute, the tiny pivots of ordinary life – into the ‘normal applauseless life of us all’, as he wrote in The Sportswriter.
That said, Canada opens with a thundercrack: ‘First, I’ll tell about the robbery our parents committed. Then about the murders, which happened later.’ In typical Ford fashion, however, the storm moves slowly after that, as a grey rumble of clouds over the prairie, darkening and gathering force. Our narrator is