Canty emerging as a short-story master

October 03, 1994|By Tim Warren | Tim Warren,Sun Staff Writer

Every so often, a collection of short stories by a young writer gets an unusual amount of attention. Usually the writer had a story published first in the New Yorker or Esquire; by the time the collection comes out, anticipation has set in.

A few years ago, it was Ethan Canin and his collection, "The Emperor of the Air." Last year, it was Thom Jones and his powerful "The Pugilist at Rest." This year, the candidate seems to be Kevin Canty, whose first collection, "A Stranger in This World," has already attracted strong notice.

Mr. Canty is the latest of young short-story writers from the West, following such figures as Rick Bass, Richard Ford, Ron Hansen, Denis Johnson. Their most obvious influence is Raymond Carver, particularly in their lean, spare, prose style. The protagonists are usually blue-collar men and women, and they're usually at a loss with the world. Many abuse drugs and alcohol. Few know what a good relationship is (they don't normally use words like "relationship," anyway).

These stories are mostly set in the Northwest -- Idaho, Montana, Washington state or Wyoming. But when these writers depict the landscape, it's usually in stark tones. They leave the gushing over the splendid Rocky Mountains scenery to travel writers: They know that lives of loneliness and desperation usually are played out amid the postcard settings.

This collection by Mr. Canty, a Montanan, is a strong one, if not quite up to the standard of Mr. Canin's luminous "The Emperor of the Air." Mr. Canty is especially good at drawing his characters, be they men or women, young or old. He establishes with uncanny skill a disquieting undertone of foreboding and danger, tinged by grotesqueness.

One particularly memorable story is "Pretty Judy," in which Paul, a high-school senior, becomes sexually involved with a retarded girl in his neighborhood. Other boys had whispered that she was available, easily manipulated. Paul is repelled, then fascinated when she not only lets him touch her, but enjoys it and asks him to have sex with her on other occasions. Then he becomes infatuated with her, and that's when the story is played out to its grim conclusion.

I also liked "King of the Elephants," about another high-school youth, Raymond, who is living in Florida with his father, a drunk. They get a call that his mother, who is estranged from his father, was found sleeping in the Washington subway. She had been institutionalized before. Mr. Canty writes:

"You see how it worked. We passed her around like the black queen in a game of hearts, the cops to the hospital, the hospital to my father, my father to me. I was the one who could not pass her on. I laid out the situation, but the hard parts of the story could not be avoided: the subway, the two-days-broken arm. 'They're holding her in St. Elizabeth's now,' I told him, 'but she can leave anytime she wants. There's nothing they can charge her with.' "

Raymond and his father drive up to Washington to rescue her. At 17, Raymond has rescued both his parents many times, and he is tired of it. He dreams of the open road, of leaving his father on Interstate 95 and hitching a ride. He has become hardened, and his father notices. He says, "I wish I knew who you loved, Raymond."

Raymond says nothing. But he thinks, "I was just going to walk away. I was just going to let his life be his own. The next month, September, I would turn eighteen, which was old enough for anything."

A few stories seem forced, particularly "Moonbeams and Aspirins," in which a couple trying to save a failing marriage hook up with a blind man in a bar. They end up teaching him how to drive, something he had always wanted to do. Since one of Raymond Carver's most memorable stories is also about an emotionally lost man who learns from a blind man ("Cathedral"), this is tricky territory. I found the similarity unsettling, and the story's ending was contrived.

I found that Mr. Canty's endings -- usually abrupt, often hinting of trouble just ahead -- gave him the most trouble. Though a good story writer wants to leave the reader slightly unsettled at the conclusion, his endings tended to leave too many questions unanswered, as if he were dropping the curtain on a play five minutes too early.

On the whole, though, "A Stran- ger in This World" is quite satisfying. Mr. Canty's writing is fluid but seldom facile, and a dark, chilling tone suffuses most of his stories. I also liked his compassion for his characters, flawed and aching though they may be. This book merits reading, and praise.

Mr. Warren's reviews appear Monday in The Sun.

BOOK REVIEW

Title: "A Stranger in This World"

Author: Kevin Canty

Publisher: Doubleday

Length, price: 180 pages, $20

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