Blue River

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Ethan Canin’s first book was a stunning collection of stories published when he was only twenty-seven years old. In EMPEROR OF THE AIR and now in his novel BLUE RIVER, Canin shows off rare gifts. He has masterful ability to describe internal and external landscapes so that the line between them begins to blur. “Blue River” is the Wisconsin factory town in which Lawrence and Edward grew up. Their house sat on “Edge Road,” where the asphalt led straight off the eroding bluff into the air above the (very brown) Mississippi. Their tangled and intense childhood is shaped by this river’s movements and sounds. When Lawrence appears in the unnamed California suburb fifteen years later, the only water around is in Edward’s swimming pool, and Lawrence stinks of chlorine.

Canin has immense confidence in emotions and mysteries which have been rejected by most of his contemporaries—forgiveness, devotion, longing, redemption. The heart of this novel is Edward’s attempt to discern, finally, whether he is a decent man or a corrupt one. What difference was there between Lawrence’s obvious, angry crimes and Edward’s complicity, excitement, and lack of will? What really constitutes treachery? Or loyalty? In the rich central section of the novel, Edward tells again the story of their childhood, his confessional, searching voice addressed directly to Lawrence.

"I don’t know whether anyone ever sees the full arc of his life,” Edward wonders. This story—full of beautifully detailed, diverse characters and honest, gripping scenes—comes as close as one can imagine to doing just that. Any one of us who has ever mulled over our beginnings in the crazy quilt of family relationships will find dozens of epiphanies, large and small, in this generous story.