To describe Emperor of the Air, Ethan Canin’s debut, as yet another collection of short stories by a young American with a Raymond Carver furation would be a little like describing Mrs Thatcher as a backbench MP – strictly accurate, but somewhat incomplete. The book caused something of a sensation in the States, where it was a bestseller (its author’s advance prompted one critic to mutter darkly about jealous competitors sticking pins in Canin voodoo dolls), and received superlative reviews over here. It really was good, too, full of sturdily built and lovingly detailed vignettes of California, all of which seemed (liked the best of Carver’s work) to wring resonance out of the flattest material. I would love to say, just once, that this is a second book which more than fulfils the promise of the first, that if you thought the debut was good, you should read this one, but in truth Blue River (Canin’s first novel) is a crunching, jarring disappointment.
It starts well enough. The first part, ‘California’, is set in the present; the long second section, ‘Wisconsin’, is a flashback, and it is the past, unhappily, that provides Canin with just as many nightmares as it presents his characters.
‘California’ describes how two brothers, Edward and Lawrence, become reunited after a period of fifteen years in which they have seen each other just once, for about fifteen minutes. Edward, the narrator, is rich and successful, and manifestly decent, but Lawrence is poor and troubled, an almost maniacal failure. After just one day, Edward drives Lawrence out of town, and there, tantalisingly and rendingly, the segment ends. ‘Wisconsin’, the flashback, takes us back to the brothers’ childhood, and explains how the relationship reached this parlous state; and that, more or less, is that.
The structure of the book almost invites disappointment, in that one already knows the conclusion before one has ploughed through the remaining three-quarters of the novel, although one could have forgiven this if the flashback section stood on its own. It doesn’t, really – ‘Wisconsin’ is pretty much your standard, smouldering small-town rites-of-passage fare. But when Canin attempts to fill in the spaces between the key narrative events (and gap-filling often proves dficult for short story writers attempting their first novel), something happens to his writing, and one suspects that Richard Ford is to blame.
When Ford’s narrators look back on a past which sowed the seeds for an unhappy present (as they do frequently, especially in his recent work – most of Rock Springs, all of Wildlife) he has a trick of including little parenthetical phrases – ‘It occurs to me now’, ‘It seems to me’, ‘I realise now’, ‘I knew even then’ – which cumulatively and mysteriously achieve an almost rhapsodic effect. It is not just that Canin is overly fond of the device, although he tries it on most pages; it is also that by definition these phrases must be followed up with some kind of illumination of the moment.
‘When I recall that summer, I believe that this may have been the first moment I understood something was about to go badly wrong,’ Edward remarks inexplicably after Lawrence has picked up his mother’s religious magazine and poked a little gentle fun at it. According to his older self, there is almost nothing that the teenage Edward did not understand, which renders the act of reading about him more or less redundant. And by this stage, when every single episode, or line of dialogue, or glance between characters, apparently contains clues to the way everyone will turn out twenty years later, these observations begin to sound gratingly phoney.
The charismatic and self-destructive Lawrence, with his penchant for gnomic yet oddly ludicrous utterances, is almost as irritating as his little brother. When he tells Edward that there are only two kinds of people in the world, one kind that wants to kill themselves, the other to kill other people, one is tempted to prove the point by leaping into the page and throttling him.
We already knew that Canin can write beautifully, and there are passages here, even in ‘Wisconsin’, with the kind of elegiac American ache that Ford and Tobias Wolff can induce at their best; there are some wonderful little set pieces that remind you of why you were looking forward to Blue River so much in the first place. In the end, however, one is left with the feeling that Canin, like his narrator, is attempting to be wise beyond his years.