For Kings and Planets

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Ethan Canin has had an impressive literary start as the author of two fine collections of stories, EMPEROR OF THE AIR (1988) and THE PALACE THIEF (1994). However, his first novel, BLUE RIVER (1991), was a disappointment; FOR KINGS AND PLANETS now proves a flat-out failure. The plot is all-too-familiar: A friendship between a Midwestern hayseed and a Manhattan sophisticate turns increasingly problematic. It’s all too predictable: the tortoise with and then against the hare, innocence opposed to decadence. Orno Tarcher is an insecure, not particularly bright kid from small-town Missouri; Marshall Emerson is a brilliant son of brilliant professors from Morningside Heights. They meet and bond as freshmen at Columbia University.

Orno plods his way through Columbia and then dental school. Marshall leaves Columbia in his sophomore year for Los Angeles to write and produce film and television scripts. Orno falls in love with Marshall’s sister, Simone, who is unpretentious and stable while her brother is seductive and mercurial. Orno and Simone live together in a small Maine town, where he joins a practice. Then Orno’s father insists on planning an elaborate wedding for them. It never comes off, as Marshall maligns his sister to Orno and disappears from the Cape, his father commits suicide, and Simone reveals to Orno that both her dad and brother lived lives of mendacity and pretentiousness. Orno concludes that he has received a moral education.

Canin’s dialogue is carelessly and flatly written, and most of his characters ring false. Banality and sentimentality infest his novel.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist. XCIV, August, 1998, p. 1920.

The Christian Science Monitor. September 17, 1998, p. B6.

The Economist. CCCXLIX, October 17, 1998, p. 16.

Library Journal. CXXIII, September 1, 1998, p. 212.

Los Angeles Times. November 18, 1998, p. E1.

The New York Times Book Review. CIII, September 13, 1998, p. 12.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLV, July 6, 1998, p. 49.

The Spectator. CCLXXXI, October 31, 1998, p. 46.

The Wall Street Journal. September 17, 1998, p. A20.

The Washington Post Book World. XXVIII, September 13, 1998, p. 11.