This book is about how to get away with murder - or three of them actually. One is accidental, but two are not. In one sense, I'm not giving anything away - the murders are mentioned in the second sentence of the book. That said, they are mentioned in what I believe to be an intentionally misleading, and therefore clarifying way. Thus a spoiler alert: the rest of this essay will necessarily interfere with a first reading of the book.
The book is told from the point of view of Dell Parsons, a 15 year old fraternal twin of Berner. They are the children of Bev and Neeva. This nuclear family is accidental. Bev is handsome, blond, and Alabaman. Neeva is small, Jewish, and the child of immigrants. They hooked up in a night of passion that created their children and thus, unintentionally, their family. They became an itinerant Air Force family, reliant on each other as they disdained the military culture and never got connected with the civilian culture because of their constant moves. I think the unintentional creation of a family that must be self reliant, and one that does not have the resources to sustain the nuclear functioning of that family, is the real crime that is at the heart of the book. The action, such as there is, revolves around two other crimes both referenced in the first two lines of the book: "First I'll tell you about the robbery our parents committed. Then about the murders, which occurred later."
The first two hundred pages of the book is about the robbery, the second two hundred is about the murders, and the final 25 pages are about the rest of Dell's life. I believe that the robbery and the murder are mirror images of each other - the second is a reworking of the first - a reworking with a "happy" ending - Dell, who is "saved" by his mother's scheme, participates in the second crime, and creates a life that is unremarkable, but stable and consistent; a life that has a better trajectory than Berner's; she who is condemned to a life of four marriages, drug abuse, and barely being able to hang on. The first crime leads to broader tragedy; the incarcerations of Bev and Neeva, her suicide, and Dell and Berner's being cast to the wind. The protagonists of the second crime get away with murder without apparent consequence.
The first two lines suggest a book of action, but this book only qualifies as an action novel if you find watching paint dry riveting. It is about the internal life of Dell, a kid whose mother sees him as being most distinctive in his ability, we learn very late in the book, to engage in "reverse thinking." This skill, poorly directly defined directly by the author, is perhaps best exemplified by the telling of the book. The twins throughout the book - Dell and Berne; the US, where the robbery takes place, and Canada, where the murders occur; Bev, who bungles the robbery, and Arthur Remlinger, the American in Canada Dell is shipped to, who gets away with murder (I bet you, like I, if you haven't read the book, thought Bev and Neeva, or maybe Dell, committed the murders); the two police officers who follow and arrest Bev, and the retired cops who suspect Arthur of the first murder, follow him, but are murdered and disposed of by him; etc.
I think the central twinning - the central "reverse thinking" - is the difference in the way that the current time crime is committed in each of the stories. In the first, Bev considers taking Dell as his accomplice. He has a well thought out plan, one that involves stealing a car from a ranch house that is currently unoccupied - with a vehicle with the keys in it in front of it, and using this vehicle as the get away car - returning to pick up the Chevy Bel Air that is the family vehicle - from the ranch, and then driving back across the border to the family home in Montana. Dell is appalled when he learns that this was his father's plan, but also wistful about the possibilities, especially compared to the clear failure of the alternate plan, where his mother drives the family Bel Air as the get away car - a car that stands our in the pickup truck plains states world almost as much as she, a jewish immigrant, does - ultimately being part of what leads to their demise.
Arthur Remlinger is an enigmatic figure. He is the person that Dell has been entrusted to in a sketchy plot that his mother hatched to keep Dell out of the orphan's home. So, Arthur, his putative stepfather, emerges as a man who wrote anti union tracts while working for Chrysler at a job that compensated him well enough (thanks to the Unions) to attend Harvard, something that fell apart when he lost his job by arguing with the Union steward (This mirrors Dell's retirement from the Air Force in part in relation to a sleazy scheme to sell stolen beef to the commissary). Arthur responds to this setback by bombing what was to have been an empty union hall on the part of the anti union group he is connected to, unintentionally murdering the union official who had gone back to get a forgotten document. On the lam, he, like Dell, lands in a business of marginal repute, but unlike Dell, he is successful. Remlinger keeps the books at a sketchy hotel that services laborers, including their needs for bed, bath, and prostitutes, and the seasonal goose hunters who come up from the States. He keeps the books so well, and scrupulously sends the profits to the owner so that, when the owner dies, the owner wills the hotel to Remlinger, who is able to finance his expensive tastes in clothing and to support himself and his girlfriend, an attractive artist who has had children in a previous marriage, but whose only "child" in this relationship is Dell, whom she looks out for after his arrival.
Dell mucks out the rooms in the hotel and lives in a shack near Remlinger's creepy lackey who sometimes shows up wearing make-up and guides the hunters to the geese. Dell observes Arthur from afar and their relationship only begins to become real as the police detectives, following the cold trail of the union hall murder twenty years later, begin to bear down on Arthur. Arthur (like Bev before him) takes Dell for long rides in the country. He uses him as a wingman, including in the fateful encounter with the ex-cops.
The cops, thinly masquerading as goose hunters, are now barracked in Dell's old shack, after he has moved into a garret in the hotel. Remlinger pretends - in a pretense that no one seems to buy - that Dell is his son, which of course, he is in this through the looking glass world I believe him to be in. He is dismissed from the room before the shooting begins, but witnesses it from Remlinger's car and participates in the clean up, being most grossed out not by the blood, but by disposing of the toupee of one of the cops.
And somehow, and this remains a bit of a mystery to me, this second version, this revision, this reworking of the crime, has a better outcome. The murderer gets away. Dell is sent to Remlinger's girlfriend's brother's home, where he will be educated, something he has craved throughout the book. He is cared for and, despite being necessarily derailed by the events - by the bank robbery, by the loss of his family, by witnessing the murders and the disposal of the bodies, and by being relocated again to another family - he is able to achieve something of the stability that he has craved and to have a life, while not worthy of the attention that the two crimes receive, suits him well enough - certainly better than her sister's fate serves her.
I do not understand all that is being portrayed here. Part of what is delicious about this book, besides the quality of the writing, is that it unfolds in ways that are satisfying precisely because they are messy and intricate and, perhaps, unfathomable. It seems to me that this is a meditation on guilt and reparation. I think that Ford may be encouraging us to consider the implications of our decisions to have children. We are guilty from the moment we conceive, because we are responsible for the most important part of the lives of our children - their childhood. I think that Bev was guilty not so much for stealing meat, or for robbing a bank, but for not including Dell in his hijinks; for not recognizing that Dell was an essential part of his own life, which was necessarily and integrally linked with Dell and Berner's lives. To put it slightly differently, Ford may be writing a morality play not as a diatribe against all that Dell stands for and, through that, a condemnation of intermittent and distant parenting, which Remlinger represents; but rather he may be imploring fathers, disconnected though they may be, not to disconnect from their children, nor to underestimate the capacities of their children to appreciate the complexities of life, especially when they are engaged in their own most difficult and even heinous tasks. If the child is engaged, Ford may be telling us, there will be consequences, but they will leave the child with a sense of being responsible for their own destiny rather than feeling that he or she has been left to the whims of chance. Knowing, quite literally, as Dell does, where the bodies are buried, and who did it, allows a child to develop with a sense of agency.
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