(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

In his early thirties, Ethan Canin has not only begun an impressive career as a prose writer but has also finished a medical residency. His father, an orchestral violinist, taught and played in the East and Middle West before accepting a post with the San Francisco Symphony. Ethan began to write while in a private high school, encouraged by Danielle Steel, the romance novelist. At Stanford University he first studied engineering, then switched to English, and he had two short stories accepted by periodicals when he was still an undergraduate. He spent two years at the University of Iowa’s Writer’s Workshop, where he wrote very little. Concerned about his scant creativity, Canin entered Harvard University Medical School. After obtaining his M.D., he took five years off to write enough stories to fill his first book, Emperor of the Air (1988), and then compose a novel, Blue River (1991), for his second. In 1993-1994, he completed a residency in internal medicine at San Francisco General Hospital.

Emperor of the Air received resounding praise from reviewers and also became a best-seller. Critics hailed Canin for the maturity of his intelligence, sensitivity of his perceptions, and grace of his prose. The issues with which the work dealt were profound: struggles between material entrapment and spiritual freedom, the flesh and the soul, fathers and children, honesty and self-delusion, justice and compassion. All the stories focus on moments of the central character’s insight and sudden growth, his—never her—epiphany.

Perhaps the most ambitious tale in Emperor of the Air is “The Year of Getting to Know Us,” in which the narrator approaching middle age, Lenny, visits his dying father in the hospital and recalls their troubled relationship. Lenny remembers episodes from his childhood and adolescence in which his distant, materialistic father avoided intimacy with his son. Once, urged by his mother, Lenny hid himself in the trunk of his father’s Lincoln as the latter set out for what the family assumed to be his regular Sunday-afternoon golf game. Instead, the boy found himself trapped into overhearing a back-seat tryst with his father’s mistress. Against this memory Lenny invokes a counter-memory: discovering his wife with her lover in a restaurant. The story closes with a chilling epiphany: During a family vacation, sixteen-year-old Lenny is taken by his father to a beach cliff overlooking the ocean. The father acknowledges that the trip’s purpose is “so we can get to know each other a little bit.” Then he adds, “You don’t have to get to know me . . . because one day you’re going to grow up and then you’re going to beme.”

The Palace Thief consists of four stories, averaging fifty pages in length. The protagonists are, as is customary with Canin, male. They range from middle age to nearly seventy. All share a naïveté about themselves and their lives. All are well-meaning, hardworking, responsible, middle-class people. Yet they are also profoundly troubled, reviewing their mismanaged, unfulfilling lives as they seek to discover who they really are.

In the opening tale an accountant, Abba Roth, gives the reader an unwittingly parodistic picture of his outward success and stuffiness: “At one time or another we have owned a Shetland pony, dug a swimming pool, leased a summer cottage at Lake Tahoe, and given generously to the Israel General Fund.” He loves his three children and his extravagant wife, who insists on being called by her full name, Scheherazade. Yet Abba’s priggish uprightness and incurable dullness approach the insufferable. At concert intermissions he ponders tax shelters and bankruptcy manipulations. He insists on making all decisions only after “careful consideration.” This cautious temperament leads him to decline the offer of his boyhood friend, Eugene Peters, to invest in his fledgling firm manufacturing magnetic oil plugs. Over the years Peters prospers grandly by employing characteristics that Abba lacks: enterprise, imagination, verve, and social ease. Abba, meanwhile, is repeatedly denied a partnership in his firm.

One day Peters invites Abba to join him for a week’s vacation at a baseball fantasy camp. There Abba outperforms him, but it is Peters who is awarded the most valuable player trophy: a pair of Willie Mays’s leggings. Peters indicates his willingness to transfer his corporation’s tax account to Abba’s firm. When Abba goes to Peters’ suite to negotiate the matter, he notices, when alone, one of the Mays leggings in his host’s...

(The entire section is 1875 words.)