Oh, Canada: Richard Ford and Liberal Nostalgia Find a Match in the Great White North

Editor’s note: Our resident free-market apologist, Harlan R. Teller, mourns the end of another season of Mad Men with a blistering review of Richard Ford’s new novel, Canada.

As a conservative, it always puzzles me how liberals consider their own political views to be “progressive,” while it is supposedly conservative reactionaries who want to turn back the clock to the bad old days of the 1950s. It’s a particular mystery, when so many of the left’s policy prescriptions seem much more suited for an era when Cadillacs had fins and “soda jerks” weren’t people who butted in line in front of you at the local Baskin-Robbins.

For example, one could have a real debate over the progressiveness of a one-size-fits-all, top-down approach to health care insurance coverage that mandates that everyone—whether you’re twenty-five or seventy-five years old; Catholic, Jewish or Muslim; gay, straight or both—has to have the same prescribed insurance coverage, under a national system of close to 200 different governing bodies overseen by a faceless panel of 15 people who are going to pretend to know what’s best for their 400 million fellow Americans. If they’re as wise as my condo association board, it’s likely that in twenty years I’ll be waiting about as long for a gall bladder procedure as I waited for my roof to be caulked. And that was a long time. Long enough for mold to form in my family room.

Whatever the merits of Obamacare (or lack thereof), the world isn’t top-down, homogeneous, and hierarchical anymore. Television networks have given way to hundreds of cable channels tailored to individual tastes. Services like Pandora leave it up to you to curate your own radio station, cutting record companies and terrestrial radio out of the equation. Facebook enables you to create your own community, and to kick out those you don’t “like” when you feel like it.

The general has become the specific in today’s culture—it’s the “my” generation that has gained ascendancy. Yet, many of my friends still believe if only we had one more top-down government program that told us how to insure our health, what size Slurpees we should drink, what should be the contents of our Happy Meal, where we can and cannot smoke our increasingly hard to find cigars, we would be on our way to societal nirvana. As Cliff Robertson might have said in his immortal portrayal of the nineteenth century desperado, Cole Younger, in the Great Northfield, Minnesota Raid, “That’s really a wonderment.”  Younger, represented as a man ahead of his time fascinated by the technologies that wrought industrial America, today would be building his Facebook page and Googling the best route leaving Northfield and heading back West. Maybe it would have saved him and his brothers from getting caught from behind by a gaggle of cantankerous Scandinavians.

But individual choice and having the freedom to make our own decisions, whether they turn out well or badly, has to take a backseat to the Utopia that some liberals are convinced is just around the corner if we adopt just one more “analog” policy in our increasingly digital world. You may not “like” Obamacare, but you can’t “unfriend” it—at least not without paying the piper, or the IRS in this case.

So it is fitting that celebrated novelist and veteran Republican-basher Richard Ford has set his latest magnum opus in the early 1960s, when Detroit was ascendant as opposed to a fiscal basket case (where today you can buy a home using your Visa card and still not reach your credit limit), private sector unions were dominant rather than a fraction of today’s work force, and bomb throwers were not feared to be kids from middle class families acting on behalf of radical left wing groups but isolated, crazy right wingers whose insanity lay in not believing in the perpetual wisdom of the post-FDR federal government.

It amazes me that in the geyser of fawning praise for Ford’s novel, Canada, that I have found no one that has picked up on the strained, semi-coherent political subtext of the book. Perhaps that’s because Ford and his obsequious reviewers inhabit the same cultural zeitgeist. They don’t see the book as political because they believe almost at a subconscious level in its liberal premises. Canada in their estimation is simply a coming of age story-cum-picaresque tour of the Northern reaches of the U.S. and Canada, narrated by a fifteen-year old whose character and life are formed by two defining, puzzling, and irretrievable acts by the adults who were responsible for his safekeeping.

You can certainly read it that way, and it is without doubt that Ford is a fine storyteller with a real knack for painting word pictures, creating a mood and an unmistakable sense of place. But the motivations of the adults have to be taken into consideration; the events, as strangely concocted as they are, don’t take place in a vacuum. The act that propels the story forward is perhaps the most amateurish and ill-fated caper in the annals of American fiction, executed with fatal imperfection by an Alabama native and Air Force veteran and his Jewish housewife/schoolteacher wife who shouldn’t have been married let alone confederates in a completely asinine attempt to rob a North Dakota bank. Which leads one to wonder just what it is that drives these mismatched marital partners to do this deed.

The Air Force vet, who can’t seem to do anything productive in civilian life other than play middleman for a scheme to pilfer prime beef and sell it to area eating establishments, is almost too dumb to get out of his own way.  Of course, he’s a Southerner, with a noticeable Dixie drawl, which puts him behind the eight ball in Ford’s estimation right away. Plus, he’s a committed FDR-style Democrat, who believes that the government has limitless resources and is a source for all good in the world. His rationalization for robbing the bank is that the government with its largess and sense of compassion will compensate anyone who had their money stolen, as if the government is the source of wealth and the compensation won’t come from other taxpayers. (At least Ford has the intellectual honesty to remark via the narrator that the vet’s trust in all things governmental made him a lifelong Democrat.)

Bev Parsons, the dimwit dad who concocts the ill-fated robbery scheme, even wears his Air Force flight suit to the bank heist, a governmental garb that I assume is supposed to imbue him with some sort of invisibility to everyone who sees him robbing the bank in broad daylight. The scheme is clearly loony, which makes it very difficult to take the first half of the book very seriously, except to set up what Ford really wants to get to, which is the narrator-boy’s sojourn in Northern Saskatchewan with a mysterious American dandy turned Canadian citizen, who we learn is racist, anti-Semitic, anti-union, anti-government and, of course, some kind of Libertarian.

This gentleman with the vaguely patrician name of Arthur Remlinger, has allegedly hightailed it out of the States after being responsible for detonating a bomb that fatally injured a union official.  Remlinger, combining remorse and guilt with a sense of self-preservation, seeks to put his American bomb-throwing life behind, seeking redemption and a new life amidst the goose hunters and the prostitutes who service them at his rustic hotel, an outpost clearly meant to be at the ass end of the world.

This isn’t Ford’s first dalliance with shorthand, non-reflective portrayals of the politically rightward. After publishing The Sportswriter and Independence Day, two finely wrought novels of love, loss, and the complexities of child rearing in the wake of separation and divorce featuring the stalwart Fordian character Frank Bascombe, Ford’s third Bascombe book, The Lay of the Land, finds a Bascombe whose dominant qualities seem to be narcissism, crankiness, self-indulgence, and a reflexive hatred of Republicans borne ostensibly of “Bush Derangement Syndrome” in the wake of the 2000 presidential election.

At times the book reads as long stretches of Bascombe driving through neighborhoods where he sells houses punctuated by his encounters with people who, a) there’s no hope for because they’re dyed in the wool Republicans and therefore are either money grubbing, racist, or have no aesthetic taste (or all three); b) are Republicans who hate Bush and are sorry they voted for him, so there’s potential for their redemption, or c) call themselves Republicans but vote Democratic, so that makes them lovable and worthy of respect. It makes one think that Ford may have been dropped on his head as a baby by one of the Koch Brothers.

What’s tragic is that when Ford sticks to writing about relationships between parents and children and husbands and ex-wives, his observations have the ring of truth. They’re often nuanced and complex, and are injected with the healthy dose of ambivalence, affection, and regret that many of us experience as fallible humans trying to muddle through our lives day to day. Then, inevitably he veers off the road into politics, skidding into the banal and simplistic, dissolving whatever spell has woven over the reader—at least this reader. Does Ford-as-Bascombe really believe that Democrats are more complicated than Republicans, who are just simple, gullible folk who always believe in appearances? Can he credibly make the claim that “everyone” always does better when Democrats are in power? Do both questions possibly deserve a bit more exposition?

As in The Lay of the Land, in Canada Ford’s political views just seem to be dropped in at random, as shorthand for making a point about a character or to make sure we don’t forget that, yes, Ford is a cool liberal guy who has disdain for un-cool conservative guys who Ford must think can only read at a fourth grade level and count with their fingers, since he’s clearly written them off as a market for his books.    For example, there’s the final scene of the book, a moving and very affecting final reunion of Dell, the narrator, with his twin sister, Berner, who is dying of cancer.   Out of nowhere, Berner mentions that she and her live-in mate voted for Obama.   Dell offers that as a Canadian citizen, he would have voted for Obama if he could have, which after visiting Canada last month I can tell you is probably the sentiment of most Canadians, even three and half years into his presidency. The brief, unnecessary Obama bantering in the midst of a sad, thematically important scene about these two star-crossed siblings is inexplicable, other than fulfilling a Tourette’s-style tic that Ford has about making sure that we appreciate his liberal politics.

The two diffident union officials who come up to Canada on an ill-defined mission to either kill Remlinger, bring him to justice, or leave him alone, act like near philosopher kings compared to those other unionists we’ve become familiar with in the real world: the ruthless Hoffas of that bygone era that Ford seems so nostalgic for, up to the present day public employee union folk in whose subtle minds Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker is equated to Hitler and Republican officials not toeing the union line subject to death threats. These two almost seem sad that they’ve come to Canada, so somber is their demeanor and Hamlet-like their actions toward their supposed prey. I want to visit the alternative universe that Jepps and Crosley inhabit. But then, I just did. They reside in Richard Ford’s Canada.

Submitted by Harlan R. Teller