Ethan Canin, “The Palace Thief” & “Carry Me Across the Water”

You’re a writer. You’ve got a story to tell.

What details do you choose to cram into the prose?

“You can describe anything—the sunset, the clouds, the trees, the leaves on the trees, the way the leaves are swaying. But how do you know what to describe?”

This is Ethan Canin—in The Atlantic—talking about mistakes he sees in young writers.

“When do you stop describing?” he asks. “If you’re describing a character’s clothes, do you stop at the shirt and pants? The watch? The headband? And the answer to all those questions—the single fundament of knowledge from which all other directives flow—is that if you deeply imagine yourself as your character, you will describe what the character would notice. It’s very easy, and it’s not conscious. If you’re a bank robber walking into a coffee house, for instance, you’ll notice different things from those a woman about to give birth will notice. The bank robber might notice the back door and the cops. The pregnant woman might look for a phone, a couch, and boiling water.”

It’s attention to detail—the right details.

Take “The Palace Thief.”

I have rarely felt that I was being pulled, inexorably and respectfully, into a story.  It’s magic when it happens and Canin manages the feat in all four stories here. They are each memorable in their own way. The reading experience is exquisite.  Canin’s stories are so bold and so clear that you have the feeling that you are being told just the right details and key moments in a life.

No strokes are wasted.  In each of these stories, there is that “gulp” moment. In “Accountant,” I suppose I should have seen it coming.  The opening line is killer: “I am an accountant, that calling of exactitude and scruple, and my crime was small.”

The way Canin works with time in “Accountant” is brilliant, showing us how childhood buddies drift apart and then come back together with powerful consequences. When the “gulp” moment comes, Canin draws it out with delicious power and we squirm and fidget and sweat.  In “Batorsag and Szerelem,” I found Canin’s dialogue and rhythms perfect, especially using the made-up language and words among young teenagers who live very much in their own world of secrets and knowledge. “The City of Broken Hearts” got to me in part because I’ve lived in Boston and I’m a Red Sox fan and this story starts with a reference to Carl Yazstremski, who “was still making his name in the majors, a bird-legged lefty with a funny swing.” The father-son strains here are captured perfectly–and then twisted around.

As he does in “Batorsag…” Canin also plays with changing generations, new lifestyles, new ways of thinking about sexuality and relationships. The way Canin paces the revelations in “The City of Broken Hearts” are brilliant.  And, finally, “The Palace Thief.”  Again, Canin arcs a story over decades but doesn’t waste our time.  I love a good story set in the stuffy, arrogant halls of academe and this is as good as it gets.  It’s a bit preposterous but deliciously enjoyable, too.  The narrator believes “this is a story without surprises.”  Hardly.  “The Palace Thief” is a wonderful tale about conviction, standards, privilege, morals and politics.  The situations are terrific but I’d recommend Canin for his style as much as anything else–a great combination of casual story-telling and forceful, highly-charged moments that become key emblems of these lives.

Like drinking cream straight from the carton, reading Ethan Canin forces you to slow down. You can’t swallow quickly. You don’t want to. You appreciate the way words coat your brain, the way images want to linger. It’s not as if every sentence is doing back-flips and waving a big flag saying “look at me, look at me.” There’s plenty of good, plain-vanilla prose as well but Canin peppers his stories with the kinds of details that give his stories punch and life. In “Carry Me Across the Water,” the story careens casually around the life of one August Kleinman, who has experienced a big chunk of the 20th century. I loved the long look-back arc to this story, all told in a fairly compact (200 page) manner.

“Carry Me Across the Water” is reflective but not inactive. The end comes with a taut war scene, enemy vs. enemy. Blood and guts. Knife to the heart. Kleinman is taking it all in, making sense of what he’s done and where he’s been. He’s evaluating the “fruit and dirt” of his life. “He had killed one man and possibly a second, told Lyndon Johnson he was a coward after paying two hundred thousand dollars to meet him, grown rich in a business that was abidingly anti-Semitic, beaten all the odds, and then lost the great love of his life before returning, if not to his former self, then at least to a man who could pass as that.”

The book flows effortlessly, using telescopes and microscopes to examine Kleinman’s life and make sense of it all. Memorable and, in its own calm way, oddly riveting.

As much as I liked “The Palace Thief” and “Carry Me Across the Water,” and its riveting morality tales, “America, America” left me indifferent. The writing alone might be worth it, however. Sentence by sentence, the prose is flowing and enticing. I listened on audio CD and Robertson Dean’s narration was brilliant and engaging throughout.

The setup? Politics.  Big sweeping American politics. Big powerful families. And secrets, misdeeds and gaps of influence, gaps of wealth, gaps of moral values. The opening? How could you not read more:

“When you’ve been involved in something like this, no matter how long ago it happened, no matter how long it’s been absent from the news, you’re fate, nonetheless, to always search it out. To be on alert for it, somehow, every day of your life. For the small item at the back of the newspaper. For the stranger at the cocktail party or the unfamiliar letter in the mailbox. For the reckoning pause on the other end of the phone line. For the dreadful appearance of something that, in all likelihood, is never going to return.”

As someone who first really focused on a U.S. Presidential campaign in 1972, it was a treat to see how Canin inserted a fictional character into the real events from that era—beautifully done. As a former reporter, I also enjoyed Canin’s lens on journalism as his main character becomes a newspaper publisher and watches a young reporter, Trieste, and marvels about how the journalistic approach has changed. But, overall, the tone is too laid back in “America, America.” The energy sags. I wanted Corey Sifter, the book’s narrator, to stop reflecting on events and jump in the middle of the action, to step into the flying jump ropes and start dancing. It doesn’t happen. This is a read for a comfy chair and a pot of coffee, if you’re up for it. It’s languorous and beautiful, but needs a jolt. It is, however, eminently readable (and enjoyable). It’s all in the character-based details.




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