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BOOK REVIEW : THE WRITING LIFE

Richard Ford finds his place

The author's new novel, 'Canada,' finds him acknowledging geography in a way he hadn't before embraced

May 27, 2012|DAVID L. ULIN | BOOK CRITIC

"With Dale," Ford says, "I tried to combine his adult and his childhood voice, to use two vocalizations: a 15-year-old boy and a 65-year-old man." The point is to show how he's reckoned with his past, even the parts for which he cannot make amends. "There's a debt to pay," Ford goes on, "but there's also a sense of accepting who you are. That's happiness, when you're 65 years old, to make do with what you're given, to come to a position of assent."

That's what Ford has been writing toward for much of his career, going back to "A Piece of My Heart," which moves between two characters who, he suggests, represent "the two sides of my brain, one sensation and the other intellect." In "Canada," though, he's integrated the impulse in a broader way. As much as Dale recalls Ford's other Montana adolescents, he's equally reminiscent of Bascombe, looking back from the second half of his life in a voice equally piercing and reflective.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday, May 30, 2012 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 1 inches; 30 words Type of Material: Correction
"Canada" review: A review in the May 27 Arts & Books section of author Richard Ford's novel "Canada" referred to the book's main character as Dale. The name is Dell.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, June 03, 2012 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part D Page 2 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 26 words Type of Material: Correction
Richard Ford: A May 27 article about author Richard Ford referred to the main character in his new novel, "Canada," as Dale. The name is Dell.

"What I want to do," Ford says, "is to get at something like Walter Benjamin's idea of instruction, to illuminate the struggle of existence. What's important to Dale is not what he's been through, so much as his desire to find some purpose. He ends up happy because he has made himself useful."

This is a traditional definition of art, of fiction: that it should instruct or enlighten us, that it should illuminate something about how we live. Yet at its center is a related notion: that the line between the ordinary and the extraordinary is often a tenuous one.

"To me," Ford writes, tracing Dale's parents' slow drift from one side of the law to the other, "it's the edging closer to the point of no return that's fascinating: all along the trip, chatting, sharing confidences, exchanging endearments -- since their life was officially still intact. ... How amazingly far normalcy extends; how you can keep it in sight as if you were on a raft sliding out to sea, the stick of land growing smaller and smaller. ... You notice it, or you don't notice it. But you're already too far away, and all is lost."

That, he claims, is "the heart of the book, that these two experiences exist side by side, that we can always pull back from the line until we cross it." In a way, it's a bit of a commonplace, but then, this is part of the novelistic enterprise, as well.

"There's no such thing as commonplace," Ford argues, "there's no such thing as ordinary. What I've found is that each thing becomes prologue to something we didn't expect. I didn't expect to write again about Montana, but it turned out there was more to say. What I've discovered about myself is that I'm a goer-backer" -- and here, he could be talking about Dale, or Bascombe, or any of his characters -- "I'm just a guy who goes back and gets more."

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david.ulin@latimes.com

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Richard Ford in conversation

Where: Aloud Series, Los Angeles Central Library's Mark Taper Auditorium, Los Angeles, 90071

When: 7 p.m. Thursday

Price: Free

More information: lfla.org/aloud/upcoming.php

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