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.

For Kings and Planets

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Ethan Canin has had an impressive start as a writer of stories, some of which are long enough to qualify as novellas. His first collection, Emperor of the Air (1988), won praise from reviewers for the maturity of his intelligence, the sensitivity of his perceptions, and the grace of his prose. His second, The Palace Thief (1994), was even more widely acclaimed for its steady moral compass, confident voice, acuteness of detail, and, above all, for the extraordinarily sensitive way in which it dealt with the consequences of feelings when people’s dreams tremble and then dissolve. He has already been proclaimed as a master of short narratives comparable to Peter Taylor, Lorrie Moore, Alice Munro, and even John Cheever.

Not so with his novels. His first, Blue River (1991), was a disappointment: too much background, not enough narrative drive. For Kings and Planets proves a flat-out failure. The plot is all too familiar: A friendship between a Midwestern hayseed and a Manhattan sophisticate turns increasingly problematic. Orno is an insecure, wide-eyed, not particularly bright grind from small-town Missouri; Marshall is a brilliant son of brilliant professors from Morningside Heights. It’s all too predictable: the tortoise with and then against the hare, the provincial against the slickster and trickster, innocence opposed to decadence. Not only have readers been here before, but usually in better company: many of Honoré de Balzac’s novels, some of Charles Dickens’s, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, and Thomas Wolfe’s autobiographical opus, for examples.

In September, 1974, Orno is driven to New York by his parents from Cook’s Grange, Missouri, the first in his family to go east for higher education. He is dressed in corduroy pants and tie, reads Wolfe’s 1929 novel Look Homeward, Angel, rises early and, his second day at Columbia, meets Marshall Emerson, returning at dawn from sybaritic revels. They share a history class on Ancient Greece and Rome. Orno works every evening in the library; Marshall never studies. Orno tells Marshall of his farming background, recounting simple memories of Missouri winters; Marshall quotes the mystic G. I. Gurdjieff and charms Orno with stories of extravagant adventures when he lived in Istanbul as a child with an Irish nanny, while his mother, an anthropologist, did her field work in the Turkish countryside. Then Marshall tells of evenings in his parents’ apartment when Margaret Mead, Francis Crick, Ralph Ellison, and other distinguished company visited; in return, Orno can only identify Steve McQueen on Columbus Avenue. Orno gets B to B- grades; Marshall’s are A+. Blessed with an eidetic memory, Marshall scores the highest grades in all of his classes while not even bothering to attend lectures. Orno has to struggle.

His first spring in New York, Orno makes the acquaintance in one of his classes of Sofia, a Russian, the daughter of a physicist who had defected. Canin flatly describes what happens next: “He was a virgin but she was not, and soon he wasn’t either.” His grades decline as they have sex daily. Marshall withdraws from Orno to date a girl descended from J. P. Morgan, but then phones him for help. Orno finds him overdosed on drugs, gets him home, and there meets Marshall’s family. Professor Emerson, an authority on vertebrate biology, cruelly informs Orno that his history professor, Winthrop Scott, has changed his name from Irving Greenstein. Later in the novel, Marshall’s sister, Simone, will reveal to Orno that her father’s real name was Mendelsohn, that he is descended from a Lithuanian Jewish barrel salesman, and that he had made up a false genealogy that he traced back to Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Manipulated by the charismatic Marshall, Orno joins a clique of heavy-drinking would-be poets, with Marshall cruelly mocking whatever targets he can find among them. He also takes Sofia from Orno; neither can resist him. The next stage in this predictable narrative finds Marshall leaving Columbia for Los Angeles, ostensibly to write a novel, actually to write film and television scripts. Orno plods on at Columbia. With his grades too low for admission to medical school, he settles for dental school and is...

(The entire section is 1746 words.)