Ethan Canin’s latest novel is so smoothly predictable that after turning the last page, you feel not so much that you’ve read it as that you’ve written it. It’s not that Carry Me Across the Water isn’t expertly written – or even that it isn’t good. All of this author’s work since the publication of his attention-grabbing debut, Emperor of the Air, in 1988, has been remarkably polished. Like one of the expensive Lincolns that its wealthy beer-magnate hero, August Kleinman, likes to drive, the new book hums along beautifully, pausing in all the right places – a dramatic confrontation here, a character-revealing moment there – as if they were must-see scenic views on a pleasant road trip during particularly fine weather. Although I’ve always admired Canin’s seriousness, he’s somehow never seemed to be an important writer. The new book suggests why.
Moving back and forth between the present and the past, Carry Me Across the Water offers a kind of narrative kaleidoscope of one man’s life: Kleinman’s privileged youth in pre-Nazi Hamburg; his escape with his mother to the U.S.; a wartime trauma in Japan; the business triumphs and the successful marriage to his Catholic high-school sweetheart, who later dies of Alzheimer’s; his late-life affair with a young Latina and his difficult relationship with an estranged son; and a climactic return to Japan, where he tries, with only partial success, to atone for an act of wartime violence.
That’s an awful lot for a short novel, but the episodes have the pointed, beat-laden impact you associate with well-written television dramas – the scenes tend to end with portentous tag lines (” ‘And know your enemy,’ she added”) or mini-cliffhangers (“Ten feet in front of him lay a sleeping Japanese soldier”) – and the narrative crosscutting is expertly handled. And there are, too, flashes of vivid and original writing along the way. When Kleinman arrives in Japan in order to find the beloved of the soldier whose letter he’s been carrying for 50 years, his petite Japanese guide nervously emits “a tiny laugh, like a bee flying out of her mouth.” I loved that.
And yet none of this really seems to matter. Part of the problem is Kleinman himself, who seems constructed rather than real. There’s something generic about the contours of his story, as if Canin had gotten his information about thirties Germany or the invasion of Japan from watching a couple of World War II documentaries; when there are arresting details, they’re apt to strike a false note. (Upper-class assimilated German Jews didn’t know from Cossacks, as Canin seems to think.) But the failure of Kleinman as a character is due mostly to the fact that the new novel is the first in which Canin abandons a narrative schema on which he’s relied heavily in the past. It’s what you might call the A Separate Peace formula: A conventional narrator becomes entangled with a more adventurous, free-living friend whom the narrator at once envies and resents, with disastrous results for one or the other or both.
This was the armature on which Blue River, Canin’s 1991 novel about two brothers, one “good” and one “bad,” was built; ditto for his big 1998 novel, For Kings and Planets, a self-consciously (you hoped) Fitzgeraldian epic about the tense friendship between a midwestern hick and a sophisticated city slicker. Clunky when blown up to novel length, the device worked better in Canin’s 1994 collection The Palace Thief, which used it to explore what you might call the moral price of ordinariness. (In “The Accountant,” a cautious CPA is goaded by envy of a wildly successful former classmate into a brief moment of minor larceny that ruins his career.)
In the new, more ambitious novel, the protagonist is clearly meant to embody both the extraordinary and the ordinary, the extreme and the commonplace, that so many lives encompass. (This is what his name, with its pretentiously imperial first name and its modest surname – Kleinman means “little man” – suggests.) But Canin’s attempt to render psychological complexity backfires, and the two poles end up canceling each other out, leaving a collection of adjectives but not a character.
That this author fares so much better when the conflicts are externalized suggests what’s so unsatisfying about his work. Canin, who teaches writing at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, studied medicine and is a practicing physician, and as you read his deft, precise novels and stories, with their familiar conflicts and types, it occurs to you that he’s thinking too much about the “rules” of writing, as if fiction were something you could dissect, figure out by its component structures alone, and then somehow “do.” This book feels like the product of a fiction workshop. I resented, and was immediately bored with, the structure of Carry Me Across the Water from the minute I realized that the revelation of precisely what happened between Kleinman and the Japanese soldier (not such a big surprise, really) was going to be withheld until the very end; that’s an artificial device, foolproof and synthetic. First-rate writers don’t need to create plotty “suspense” in order to achieve their moral climaxes.
This studied quality goes for more than just Canin’s accomplished technique. If his previous novel smacked of Fitzgerald, the new one is a whole smorgasbord of recent Jewish-American fiction: the latest Michael Chabon (Jewish immigrants assimilating to mainstream America), the last two Louis Begley novels as well as the current Philip Roth (rich old Establishment guy makes it with hot Latina), maybe a soupçon of Saul Bellow. I’m not saying that Canin’s stealing other people’s plots; it’s just that everything you get from him feels like something you’ve gotten before – something you get not by living a lot but by reading and writing (and teaching) a lot.
For all his literary gleam, Canin isn’t half the writer that Jacqueline Susann was; at least the things you get in her fiction are urgent and authentic, stuff she knew about and simply had to communicate. (You may not think it’s worthwhile, but that’s another story.) The things that happen in Canin’s novel, on the other hand – a “symbolic” vignette about assimilation in which the 18-year-old Kleinman pretends to be a college-football player, the fact that this refugee from Hitler marries a Gentile, his final trip to Japan – happen merely because they’re the kinds of things that happen in a certain type of well-behaved literary fiction.
That’s not good enough. In the end, Canin’s work exemplifies the subtle but crucial difference between good writing and good fiction. Carry Me Across the Water is the most ambitious treatment yet by this skilled and earnest author of a theme tersely summed up by his failed accountant: “Why, of all the lives that might have been mine, I have led the one I have just described.” Until Canin himself is willing to leave the protective cover of life cautiously observed rather than lived firsthand, his work will remain as vague and unfulfilled as so many of his narrators.
Daniel Mendelsohn was recently awarded the National Book Critics Circle citation for Excellence in Reviewing.
Carry Me Across the Water
By Ethan Canin
224 pages; Random House; $23.95.