Emperor of the Air

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 7)

Ethan Canin grew up in California and is a resident of Boston, where he is enrolled in the Harvard University Medical School. A graduate of the Iowa Writers Workshop, he has published widely and has amassed an impressive list of awards: the James Michener Award, the Henfield/Transatlantic Review Award, the Houghton Mifflin Literary Fellowship, and a $20,000 fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. Additionally, two of the stories in Emperor of the Air, Canin’s first collection, appeared respectively in the 1985 and 1986 editions of Best American Short Stories. Canin’s work has been compared to that of John Cheever, Peter Taylor, and John Updike, three masters of the short story. Few young writers can claim such prestigious accomplishments.

Emperor of the Air contains nine stories that center on moments of awareness and decision, moments of beauty, hope, and love. These crystalline moments, coupled with rich descriptive prose, grant power to Canin’s stories. Yet Canin exhibits some of the young writer’s tendency to limit his range. Of the nine stories here, eight have first-person narrators, only one of whom is female. Also, though his male figures are strongly delineated, many of Canin’s female characters are superficially or stereotypically drawn. Too many of them are manipulative and unlikable or extraordinarily self-punishing and naïve. A writer of traditionally structured stories, Canin relies heavily on retrospection, which he handles successfully. A weakness perhaps emerges in his tendency to dwell on the struggle between parents and children.

Though it contains sections of retrospection, the title story in an exception. Its focus is the conflict, not between parent and child, but between the sixty-nine-year-old narrator and his neighbor over the continued life of the narrator’s vermin-ridden elm tree. Mr. Pike, the neighbor, wants the 250-year-old elm destroyed before it crumbles into his house or its vermin infest his own young elms. The narrator, a traditionalist whose health is failing, fights to save the tree, even stooping to a scheme to infest Mr. Pike’s trees. The elm is a symbol of the narrator, his childhood and ancestors, a link with the past. Like the narrator, who has suffered a heart attack, it is decaying from within, while Mr. Pike, who is linked with modern shoddiness and self-interest, remains strong and adamant. Conscientious in carrying out this characterization, Canin uses even the different types of wristwatches the two men wear to detail their differences.

The beauty of this story can be found in Canin’s precise descriptions of the moments of awareness and joy the narrator experiences, moments that celebrate life. Even the insects that infest the narrator’s tree are described in a way that is both scientific and poetic. The most poignant moments, however, come near the story’s end. When the narrator stumbles into his neighbor’s homemade bomb shelter, he realizes that Mr. Pike is after all “a hopeless man, . . . small and afraid.” Moments later, the narrator, himself a childless man whose father taught him about the night sky, overhears Mr. Pike attempting to name the constellations for his son, even though “he didn’t know what they were and was making up their names as he spoke.” Witnessing Mr. Pike’s vulnerability, the intimacy he expresses with his son, brings a moment of overwhelming joy and wonder to the narrator, a sense of rebirth.

Canin’s writing peaks in these moments, but not all the stories in Emperor of the Air have the power of the title story. Two stories that frustrate rather than elate are “The Year of Getting to Know Us” and “Where We Are Now.” Both have male narrators in their mid- to late thirties or early forties. Both have peculiarly flat tones, products of the narrators’ voices. Both present unfavorable portraits of women who demand or expect too much of their husbands and their marriages. Both also involve marital difficulties, though the true conflict in “The Year of Getting to Know Us” is an unresolved one between the narrator and his father, a cold man, indifferent to his son and family life. The problem with these stories is their lack of the clarity of values and character found in Canin’s “Emperor of the Air.” Leonard, the narrator of “The Year of Getting to Know Us,” is a cool and objective man, satisfied, he maintains, with his marriage and life, though his wife has an extramarital affair to see if she can hurt him. On the surface, Leonard is unlike his remote father, yet the story ends with a flashback that leads the reader to question that assumption. Just how much did Leonard’s father influence him? What kind of man is Leonard, really? Why is he so accepting of his wife’s affair? Indeed, what sort of woman would have an affair to hurt her husband, to get him to react?

“Where We Are Now” is equally frustrating. The narrator, Charlie Gordon, presents himself as a man of principle, a high-school teacher and coach who passed up a career in baseball in order to lead an authentic life. A hero in his own eyes, Gordon, like Leonard in “The Year of Getting to Know Us,” displeases and disappoints his wife. In the end, he abandons his values, his strong belief in the importance of honesty, to please her. Again, the reader is left puzzled. Is Gordon as shallow and shoddy as the life reflected in the neighborhoods he and his wife, Jodi, visit? If Gordon is merely a decent man corrupted by a corrupt world, what, then, can be said of his wife’s role in his corruption, for it is she who leads him to lie? Like “The Year of Getting to Know Us,” “Where We Are Now” raises questions that remain unanswered, yet the two stories are successful in portraying subtle moments of awareness and isolation. For Leonard,...

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Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

The most effective technique that Canin employs in this carefully wrought story is his artful use of flashbacks and symbolism, particularly in regard to the historical significance of the ancient elm tree in the young narrator’s childhood. The tree takes on a mythic dimension as the tree of knowledge as it becomes the symbolic agent of revelation for both the youthful and the aging narrator. The tree becomes an instrument for gaining perspective—for learning not only about the world but also, equally important, about himself. The tree also becomes the controlling metaphor for the entire story, in that it ties together all the various branches of the narrative: the narrator’s youth, the focus of conflict between Pike and the narrator, and a natural object that transcends the boundaries of time and mortality. It is, in a sense, a modernized version of the mythic Tree of Knowledge in Eden, because it becomes the medium through which the narrator more deeply understands himself, his past, and the possibilities of hope in what he had presumed was an irredeemable world.


(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

The first book by an unknown writer, and a collection of short stories to boot, EMPEROR OF THE AIR is one of the year’s most unlikely best-sellers. The good looks and charm of author Ethan Canin, a twenty-seven-year-old medical student, have not hurt sales, but publicity alone--even the fact that one of Canin’s high school English teachers was Danielle Steel--cannot account for the book’s surprising success. What special qualities do these stories possess?

Probably their most distinctive feature is their tone. Of the nine stories in the book, eight are narrated in the first person, and while the narrators vary widely in age and occupation, they are quite consistent in tone. Canin’s narrators have a gentleness uncommon in contemporary fiction, and they are further linked by an alertness to the irreducible mystery of human experience, particularly as it is manifested in odd little quirks of character.

All of these qualities are exemplified in the title story, narrated by a sixty-nine-year-old high school teacher who still lives in the house in which he was reared. Outside that house stands a magnificent old elm, which he greatly treasures. When the elm becomes infested with insects, the narrator’s neighbor demands that he have it cut down. The narrator refuses, saying that the insects can be contained. (In fact, it appears that they cannot.) A low-key conflict ensues, culminating in the narrator’s mad intention to deposit a jar of the insects on...

(The entire section is 451 words.)