Sunday, January 3, 2010

A little gem

After a round trip of 3000 miles and twelve rather overfull days, in which by planning or accident my wife and I saw most members of the immediate family tree, I've returned to home base in Arkansas. That means Creating Van Gogh is up and running again--and looking forward to Spring 2010. For my first post of this new year, however, I thought I should return to some unfinished business from last month; namely, another recommendation for a novel to read (as if you don't have enough novels you want to read already). If you've been checking into this blog even semi-regularly you know that while I work on my Van Gogh novel, I've been making a special effort to read more historical fiction. One book I really enjoyed when I read it last month, so much so that I want to tell you about it, was Ethan Canin's Carry Me Across the Water (2001). This cannot strictly be called a historical novel since the book's setting is contemporary and the very interior conflict that afflicts the main character is mostly acted out in the present. However, it is a book which evokes the burden of history, especially as how that burden affects the individual. In this case, the burden stems from World War Two, which, Canin's book reminds us, became and remained life's focal point for the generation of Americans who fought in that conflict. No matter what they went on to accomplish--Canin's Kleinman becomes a successful, wealthy beer manufacturer--it is their wartime experiences which inevitably define them. For Kleinman, understandable if regretable actions he took while fighting on a Pacific island leave him with a store of both guilt and curiosity that a lifetime cannot extinguish, not until as a senior citizen he finally travels to Honshu in Japan.

That's all the plot you need to know. Meanwhile, there is much to admire in Canin's storytelling method, from his provocative way of scattering his scenes to his dramatization of Kleinman's experiences as a soldier. The wartime scenes contrast neatly with the equally well-realized ones in which the older Kleinman battles against his son's lack of trust in his abiltity to take care of himself or act as an effective babysitter for his grandson. While that might sound like a rather banal domestic tension, at least compared with World War II, Canin makes it engaging through use of sharp details as well as Kleinman's self-possession and wry sense of humor. And it's entertaining to watch the uniquely symapthetic relationship between Kleinman and his son's non-Jewish wife. Too, one can only admire the economy with which Canin manages to suggest Kleinman's whole life, from his childhood in pre-war Germany to his family's escape to the U.S. to the history of his marriage and career as a businessman after the war. No parts of this history, not even his present squabbles with his son, are finally untouched by what happened to him as a GI.

The book is a quiet little gem. Perhaps because I am delighted by its crusty if intuitive "hero," or perhaps because in this book Canin seems to have escaped himself and the obsessions of his own generation, the novel is far more satisfying than the two other Canin novels I've read: Blue River and For Kings and Planets. Both of those, I hate to say, were thoroughly lackluster efforts (no matter what the reviews said). There seemed nothing of consequence going on in the latter book. However, if, like me, you know and love Canin from his fine short story collections Emperor of the Air and The Palace Thief, this is one of his novels that you don't want to skip.


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