A physician/author examines the heartbreak of ordinary people

March 13, 1994|By Scott Timberg

We imagine our writers flamboyant aesthetes, subterranean bohemians, rough-hewn men of the people, surly hermits. But many of our finest writers have been more bourgeois than bohemian.

Physicians and insurance executives have contributed more to American literature than most are prepared to admit. With "The Palace Thief," Ethan Canin -- the 33-year-old graduate of Harvard Medical School now doing his medical residency in California -- confirms his place as a short-story writer with few parallels on the contemporary scene.

He's also a writer whose ability to explore unfashionable, unlikely milieus gives him a particular niche in American letters. "The Palace Thief," like Dr. Canin's lyrical and much-acclaimed collection of 1988, "Emperor of the Air," deserves to sit on the shelf between the stories of Ernest Hemingway, John Cheever and J. D. Salinger.

"Money is a kind of poetry," insurance man Wallace Stevens once wrote, expressing a sentiment shared by Abba Roth, narrator of the book's first story.

"I am an accountant, that calling of exactitude and scruple, and my crime was small," Roth announces in the first line of "Accountant" (which was first published in Esquire). "I have worked diligently, and I do not mind saying that in the conscientious embrace of the ledger I have done well for myself over the years, yet now I must also say that due to a flaw in my character I have allowed one small trespass against my honor."

Roth's defensiveness, polite boasting, stilted cadence and blindness to his own naivete never flag. The result is one of the most convincing and archetypally American characters in recent memory.

He's also a character a writer less agile than Dr. Canin could spend his entire career rewriting -- the slightly repressed, slightly refined, bourgeois wrestling silently with middle-class propriety. No mere caricature, Roth is a fully realized, empathetic and idiosyncratic character who is aware only subconsciously of what he's surrendered for the American dream. The story involves Roth's trip to a baseball "fantasy camp" to confront a childhood rival whose success seems to discredit his own.

Like many of Dr. Canin's protagonists, Roth searches for the transcendent in the commonplace. Dr. Canin shares with Cheever not only a gift for storytelling and a lurking psychological darkness but the ability to render the mundane in lyrical language.

Accounting, Roth tells us, "contained a natural eloquence, unbent by human will . . . a more profound language than the

common man might have assumed it to be. Indeed, at times I felt it was capable of explaining not only outlays and receipts but much of the natural world."

Although the accountant chooses his wife by a process that seems more mathematical than romantic, and has spent much of his life in the process of empty reassurance, his spiritual longing and unrest gradually emerge. Before the story's end Roth admits that, for all his earnestness and dedication, "I must acknowledge that within me I have always felt the impulse for uproar and disorder."

The story realizes everything that Dr. Canin aimed for, and only imperfectly pulled off, in "Blue River," his 1991 novel. The collection of "Accountant" in a recent volume of Esquire stories marks the first of what will be many reprintings -- resonant, crisp and affecting, the story is a tour de force for its command of verbal mannerism alone.

Dr. Canin's prose style throughout the book's four stories is more detached and ironic than in "Emperor." His style recalls Joyce's description of the writer standing aloof above his work, paring his fingernails. Like Joyce, Dr. Canin in his best stories allows moments where the detachment disappears, and the words acquire such poignancy that they seem to detach from the page, as if the very secrets of the world were being revealed.

Dr. Canin's finest stories, such as "Accountant," maintain a motion between detachment and the rush of insight. "Batorsag and Szerelem," a story about a precocious family that recalls Salinger's Glass clan, and "The Palace Thief," about a dedicated and self-deceiving teacher of ancient history at a boy's prep school, are almost as strong.

In the book's least successful piece, "City of Broken Hearts," Dr. Canin coasts on his considerable technical gifts and his ability to sketch character and scene, leaving the story merely conventional and competent.

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