The Palace Thief

by Ethan Canin

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1875

In his early thirties, Ethan Canin has not only begun an impressive career as a prose writer but has also finished a medical residency. His father, an orchestral violinist, taught and played in the East and Middle West before accepting a post with the San Francisco Symphony. Ethan began to write while in a private high school, encouraged by Danielle Steel, the romance novelist. At Stanford University he first studied engineering, then switched to English, and he had two short stories accepted by periodicals when he was still an undergraduate. He spent two years at the University of Iowa’s Writer’s Workshop, where he wrote very little. Concerned about his scant creativity, Canin entered Harvard University Medical School. After obtaining his M.D., he took five years off to write enough stories to fill his first book, Emperor of the Air (1988), and then compose a novel, Blue River (1991), for his second. In 1993-1994, he completed a residency in internal medicine at San Francisco General Hospital.

Emperor of the Air received resounding praise from reviewers and also became a best-seller. Critics hailed Canin for the maturity of his intelligence, sensitivity of his perceptions, and grace of his prose. The issues with which the work dealt were profound: struggles between material entrapment and spiritual freedom, the flesh and the soul, fathers and children, honesty and self-delusion, justice and compassion. All the stories focus on moments of the central character’s insight and sudden growth, his—never her—epiphany.

Perhaps the most ambitious tale in Emperor of the Air is “The Year of Getting to Know Us,” in which the narrator approaching middle age, Lenny, visits his dying father in the hospital and recalls their troubled relationship. Lenny remembers episodes from his childhood and adolescence in which his distant, materialistic father avoided intimacy with his son. Once, urged by his mother, Lenny hid himself in the trunk of his father’s Lincoln as the latter set out for what the family assumed to be his regular Sunday-afternoon golf game. Instead, the boy found himself trapped into overhearing a back-seat tryst with his father’s mistress. Against this memory Lenny invokes a counter-memory: discovering his wife with her lover in a restaurant. The story closes with a chilling epiphany: During a family vacation, sixteen-year-old Lenny is taken by his father to a beach cliff overlooking the ocean. The father acknowledges that the trip’s purpose is “so we can get to know each other a little bit.” Then he adds, “You don’t have to get to know me . . . because one day you’re going to grow up and then you’re going to beme.”

The Palace Thief consists of four stories, averaging fifty pages in length. The protagonists are, as is customary with Canin, male. They range from middle age to nearly seventy. All share a naïveté about themselves and their lives. All are well-meaning, hardworking, responsible, middle-class people. Yet they are also profoundly troubled, reviewing their mismanaged, unfulfilling lives as they seek to discover who they really are.

In the opening tale an accountant, Abba Roth, gives the reader an unwittingly parodistic picture of his outward success and stuffiness: “At one time or another we have owned a Shetland pony, dug a swimming pool, leased a summer cottage at Lake Tahoe, and given generously to the Israel General Fund.” He loves his three children and his extravagant wife, who insists on being called by her full name, Scheherazade. Yet Abba’s priggish uprightness and incurable dullness approach the insufferable. At concert intermissions he ponders tax shelters and bankruptcy manipulations. He insists on making all decisions only after “careful consideration.” This cautious temperament leads him to decline the offer of his boyhood friend, Eugene Peters, to invest in his fledgling firm manufacturing magnetic oil plugs. Over the years Peters prospers grandly by employing characteristics that Abba lacks: enterprise, imagination, verve, and social ease. Abba, meanwhile, is repeatedly denied a partnership in his firm.

One day Peters invites Abba to join him for a week’s vacation at a baseball fantasy camp. There Abba outperforms him, but it is Peters who is awarded the most valuable player trophy: a pair of Willie Mays’s leggings. Peters indicates his willingness to transfer his corporation’s tax account to Abba’s firm. When Abba goes to Peters’ suite to negotiate the matter, he notices, when alone, one of the Mays leggings in his host’s dresser drawer—and slides it inside his briefcase. Afraid thereafter to open his case during the business session, Abba can think only of declaring his firm’s lack of interest in obtaining the account. Back home, he wonders “why, of all the lives that might have been mine, I have led the one that I have just described.”

The next tale, “Batorsag and Szerelem,” is, like all but one of the stories, narrated retrospectively by a middle-aged man, William, whose older brother Clive, he recalls, was a mathematics genius who won every competition he entered in his teens. Clive exasperates his family by casting most of his words in an invented language that only his best friend Elliot understands. Clive’s girlfriend, Sara, spends much of her time hiding in the family’s basement furnace room. Although confiding to William that she is Clive’s lover, she eventually seduces the younger brother. Near the story’s end, Clive’s convoluted personality is at least partly unlocked when the father and William discover him in a homosexual embrace with Elliot. William recognizes the event as signaling a “sea change” in the family, but remains unmoved at the time. “All I could think of was that now was the beginning of my own ascendence.” Fifteen years later, on his way to the hospital bedside of the dying Clive, he recognizes that his brother’s misfortune has become deeply lodged in his own self, “as the fleeting ghostly shape of a wish.” At last, he can shed copious tears for Clive—and for himself.

“City of Broken Hearts” is Canin’s only published story to be cast in the third person; it is also his most conventional and predictable. Wilson Kohler’s wife has left him for another man who holds a higher position in his firm, and Wilson is embittered and adrift. He womanizes forlornly, dresses unsuitably, tells randy and puerile jokes, and becomes an avid Boston Red Sox fan. His understanding twenty-year-old son, Brent, rescues his father from loneliness and despair, introducing him to a woman of solid quality. To find a new life by loving again, the father must learn from the son.

The title story is Canin’s most accomplished. A teacher of ancient history, Mr. Hundert, retired from an exclusive private school after a lifetime’s service to three generations of boys, reviews his career so he can warn other students of history concerning the corrupt course of a powerful business leader and politician. As a boy, Sedgewick Bell arrives at St. Benedict’s School as a student with the formidable support of a father who is a ruthless United States senator. Hundert finds himself drawn into a losing battle of wits with both the father and his bullying, lying son. At the annual tournament in Roman history, a public ritual attended by parents and graduates, Bell almost wins the competition by cheating. Consulting his headmaster, Hundert is advised to ignore the trespass—Senator Bell is in the audience. Later, Hundert is intimidated by both school authorities and Senator Bell from pursuing disciplinary action against Sedgewick.

In the ensuing years, Sedgewick Bell becomes chairman of the nation’s second-largest corporation, while Hundert fails to obtain the headmaster position he believes he deserves and is forced into retirement. Lacking family or close friends, he has become a fussy and foolish old man. Then comes an invitation from Bell to preside over a rematch of the Roman history competition. This time it is held on one of Bell’s islands before a select audience of academics, policymakers, and corporate captains. Bell answers all but one of his former teacher’s questions correctly. Yet Hundert realizes that Bell has again cheated, and Hundert himself again fails a moral test: He does not expose the powerful Bell before this powerful public. When the two meet for a farewell, they take each other’s measure and agree that neither has changed. Bell proceeds to follow his father into the Senate, while Hundert sinks into solitary obscurity.

Ethan Canin’s writing can be adversely criticized on several grounds. He has no female protagonists, and the women to whom he gives supporting roles are usually stereotyped: Jewish mother, sexy flight attendant, born-to-shop spouse, girl from the wrong side of the tracks. Some of his tales court anemia, in the sense that he is using life to illustrate his symbolic patterns rather than discerning patterns in the life he invents. Few of his stories cry out urgently to be told; a stubborn intellectual structure tends to impose itself on the groundwork of original impulses. His physical world is usually sparsely provided, if not absent. His narrative technique is too often programmatic: He almost always begins with a beguilingly mysterious statement and concludes with the central character’s epiphany.

Yet Canin’s fictive talent is prodigious, and his success is already considerable. While he works with contemporary settings, he dramatizes age-old dilemmas that usually center on familial issues—conflicts between sons and fathers, husbands and wives, siblings and siblings. He switches assuredly from one age perspective to another, and he does so with a steady moral compass, confident voice, and acuteness of detail. Not for Canin are the literary brat-pack subjects of rebelling without a cause, drug abuse, rock music, group sex, and gang banging. Instead, he deals in an extraordinarily sensitive way with the consequences of feeling when people’s personal dreams tremble and then dissolve.

In an interview, Canin identified Saul Bellow, John Cheever, and Peter Taylor as authors whose work he has read steadily and who have influenced his writing. Surprisingly, he made no reference to the writer to whom his own work bears the strongest resemblance: Henry James. Like those of James, Canin’s characters are unfailingly sensitive, intelligent, and reflective. Like James, he calibrates degrees of entrapment and freedom and masters subtle resonances of tone. Like James, he stitches dense layers of implication into his narratives. Like James, he has his characters reveal themselves through pointed dialogue and small but decisive actions. Above all, like James, he makes his grand theme the discovery, by the reader if not always by the protagonist, of a life’s having been badly lived.

Ethan Canin is still too young and untried to rank with a grand master such as James. He is, however, wise beyond his young manhood and gifted enough to promise a significant career in contemporary American letters.

Sources for Further Study

The Antioch Review. LII, Summer, 1994, p. 530.

Booklist. XC, January 1, 1994, p. 804.

Choice. XXXI, July, 1994, p. 1719.

Kirkus Reviews. LXI, December 15, 1993, p. 1539.

Library Journal. CXVIII, December, 1993, p. 178.

New Statesman and Society. VII, March 4, 1994, p. 40.

The New York Times Book Review. XCIX, February 20, 1994, p. 10.

Publishers Weekly. CCXL, November 22, 1993, p. 48.

Time. CXLIII, March 21, 1994, p. 76.

The Times Literary Supplement. February 25, 1994, p. 10.

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