A great American novel by the Pulitzer Prize–winning author.
This is Ford’s first novel since concluding the Frank Bascombe trilogy, which began with The Sportswriter (1986), peaked with the prize-winning Independence Day (1995) and concluded with The Lay of the Land (2006). That series was for Ford what the Rabbit novels were for Updike, making this ambitious return to long-form fiction seem like something of a fresh start but also a thematic culmination. Despite its title, the novel is as essentially all-American as Independence Day. Typically for Ford, the focus is as much on the perspective (and limitations) of its protagonist as it is on the issues that the narrative addresses. The first-person narrator is Dell Parsons, a 15-year-old living in Montana with his twin sister when their parents—perhaps inexplicably, perhaps inevitably—commit an ill-conceived bank robbery. Before becoming wards of the state, the more willful sister runs away with her boyfriend, while Dell is taken across the border to Canada, where he will establish a new life for himself after crossing another border, from innocent bystander to reluctant complicity. The first half of the novel takes place in Montana and the second in Canada, but the entire narrative is Dell’s reflection, 50 years later, on the eve of his retirement as a teacher. As he ruminates on character and destiny and ponders “how close evil is to the normal goings-on that have nothing to do with evil,” he also mediates between his innocence as an uncommonly naïve teenager and whatever wisdom he has gleaned through decades of experience. Dell’s perspective may well be singular and skewed, but it’s articulate without being particularly perceptive or reflective. And it’s the only one we have. In a particularly illuminating parenthetical aside, he confesses, “I was experiencing great confusion about what was happening, having had no experience like this in my life. I should not be faulted for not understanding what I saw.”
At the start of the novel’s coda, when Dell explains that he teaches his students “books that to me seem secretly about my young life,” he begins the list with The Heart of Darkness and The Great Gatsby. Such comparisons seem well-earned.