Exploration of Canin Characters
Ethan Canin – what an extraordinary writer. When you’re done with his books you feel like you have looked deep into his characters’ essence, but his stories also expand the reader’s mind outward – I think I learned more about math from A Doubter’s Almanac than I did in all my many years of studying it.
Canin’s background in academia really shows – he grew up in Iowa City, where his father taught violin at the university of Iowa, and now teaches there. He is good at showing what makes really brainy people tick. Add in his background as a medical student (Harvard) – many of his stories feature people who put a lot of pressure on themselves to succeed.
Like Milo the mathematician, who became famous relatively young, Ethan Canin experienced a starburst of success with his first book, The Emperor of the Air, published in 1988 to tremendous acclaim and comparisons with short-story master John Cheever. Canin was in his 20s at the time.
Many of the stories in Emperor feature dreamy, very bright people locked in the mundane world. The title story is about a high school astronomy teacher who becomes locked in battle over a neighbor who wants an old elm tree that has become invested with insects to be cut down. It’s a conflict between the high-minded and the everyday, of ideals vs. reality.
I’m going to jump forward to his second novel, For Kings and Planets. It tells the story of Orno, son of a very typical Missouri family, who arrives at Columbia University in 1974 and is dazzled by just about everything, including a classmate who is the son of two brilliant and socially prominent Columbia professors.
Talk about walking into a different world. Orno and Marshall are sort of like the tortoise and the hare – Orno has to work like a dog to succeed, while Marshall doesn’t even have to attend classes, because he has already read most of the material.
Of course, these two are more evenly matched than a first look would indicate – Orno has a certain integrity and down-to-earth quality that keeps him on track; Marshall has a dark streak that becomes increasingly apparent as the story proceeds. This book is not just a character study; it’s an examination of the vast differences in Americans’ backgrounds and what happens when they are thrown together.
His third novel, Carry Me Across the Water, was something different. It’s really about memory, an elegy to a 78-year-old man’s life as he is thrust back into the past by mundane experiences in the present.
August Kleinman is the protagonist, a 78-year-old former brewery owner whose story begins when his wealthy Jewish mother spirits him out of Germany in the runup to World War II. Good move, though August’s father won’t go. August settles in Queens with his mother, now scraping together a living for both of them and very determined that August will advance in America. I love her advice to him – “take the advice of no one” – er, okay, mom. In fact, it turns out to be great advice. August eventually opens a brewery in Pittsburgh, which no one knowledgeable thinks will succeed, and becomes a wealthy man.
There are August’s combat experiences in World War II in the Pacific, which teach him some things about courage. There’s his marriage to his Italian-American sweetheart, and the eventual loss of his wife to Alzheimer’s. This is an elegant, somber book, and at 206 pages, it’s not a big time investment. It’s another way to try out this talented author.
I want to briefly mention Canin’s novel America, America, about a young boy of humble origin who whose fortunes are altered by a very wealthy upstate New York family.
Like Carry Me Across the Water, it’s told in retrospect; the young boy is now an aging newspaper publisher, Corey Sifter, who tells his story to a young woman who has a hard time comprehending its context – who can really understand the political tumult of America in the 1970s – Nixon, Watergate, Vietnam – unless you lived through it?
As a boy, Sifter is sent to a tony private school by his sponsors, and ends up working for a U.S. Senator who experiences a Chappaquiddick-type tragedy. This is another book of acute observation about America’s class differences. Not as well reviewed as some of Canin’s other books, it is still worth a look.
Finally, the entire time I was reading A Doubter’s Almanac I kept thinking of A Beautiful Mind, Sylvia Nasar’s great biography of John Nash, the mathematical genius who developed game theory and then descended into madness. Like Milo in “A Doubter’s Almanac,” Nash was completely driven by his work. Nash’s story eventually had a relatively happy ending, as he survived his years of madness and went on to win the Nobel Prize in economics, but there were many hard years leading up to the eventual revival of his career.