Ethan Canin’s short stories are characterized by a humorous and empathic approach to his characters and their situations and by a polished literary style. Family life is a favorite subject, although the members of Canin’s families are almost always at odds with one another. Often Canin’s stories turn on the exploration of two characters who, even if friends or members of the same family, approach life with differing values and modes of perception. As the paths of these characters diverge, Canin introduces a larger, more reflective aspect to his stories that allows the reader to consider such issues as sanity and normality, delinquency and conventionality, science and art.
The construction of a viable male identity is a strong concern in Canin’s work. Whether they are concerned with fathers and sons, students and teachers, peers or brothers, Canin’s stories often portray men whose characters or values clash. Of special concern is the contrast between the man who conforms to a fairly traditional role and the man who has chosen a more offbeat and unconventional way of life. Canin’s mavericks can be frightening or they can be inspiring, but they always exist as a possibility in the psyche of his male characters.
The contrast between a scientific, secular America, whose primary value is material well-being, and a more imaginative, rebellious, or spiritual vision of life is also an important theme in Canin’s work. In this theme readers can see the exquisite contrast between the medical and literary sides of Canin himself. In exploring the tensions in contemporary American life, however, Canin avoids an easy, journalistic topicality, so that his stories engage larger moral and philosophical issues and begin to function as timeless parables.
Emperor of the Air
Although the stories in Emperor of the Air feature characters suffering from heart disease, epilepsy, and birth defects, these illnesses serve larger themes involving the tensions between father and son and between the practical mind and the poetic imagination. In “Star Food,” a young boy must resolve his father’s wish that he help in his grocery store and learn to work for a living with the encouragement to dream coming from his mother, who feels that the time the boy spends on the roof looking at the stars will one day make him a great man. Competing perspectives are also the subject of “American Beauty.” In this story, which features characters that return in Canin’s novel Blue River, tensions between the creative Darienne and her two brothers, who are more interested in motorcycle mechanics, also contrast romantic and practical views of the world. Whereas the young boy in “Star Food” is able to balance these two perspectives, the divisions in this family end with revelations of psychopathology on the part of the older, dominant brother, who claims his brutal behavior as one of the prerogatives of masculinity.
Male role models are also the topic of “The Year of Getting to Know Us.” The father’s philandering and preoccupation with work and golf have made him an inaccessible parent, and his son reacts with acts of vandalism....
(The entire section is 1305 words.)