Love through prism of a scotch glass

February 27, 2005|By Christopher Corbett | Christopher Corbett,Special to the Sun

Winslow In Love

By Kevin Canty. Nan A. Talese / Doubleday. 292 pages. $23.95.

The drunken poet in sad decline is a stock figure in fiction (usually cruelly comic) and nowhere more so than in the little novel of academic life. We have been here before. But Kevin Canty's new novel, Winslow In Love, is not a predictable tale of goatish pedagogues or schoolmaster's high jinx. And it is never funny.

From the first page of this grim story -- think Raymond Carver -- a terrible sense of dread looms, from the rainy streets of the Pacific Northwest and the seedy bar in which the book opens to the remote college in Montana where Richard Winslow, an alcoholic poet desperate for dollars, washes ashore for a semester to teach Rilke to the impressionable and go fly-fishing. This is a profoundly dark book and a river of scotch runs through it. (There should be a ban on writing about fly-fishing in this country for five years, but let that pass.) Winslow's younger wife, a painter named June Leaf who has been supporting him, is leaving but not before installing her besotted husband here in the snowy wilds in the bleak midwinter. The end is near.

The town is called Athens (attention, academic joke at next exit). Here, Winslow befriends and then falls in love with Erika Jones, a sad, strange girl who is dying of anorexia. Winslow is a mess -- 55, fat, balding, chain-smoking, slowly killing himself, and if the booze and cigarettes are insufficient, he wolfs down greasy breakfasts and plates of bad Chinese food. He is consumed with self-pity. Erika is a waif, rail thin and ratty in thrift shop castoffs, covered with Celtic tattoos and multiple piercings. She is 20 -- fierce, angry and suicidal. (I can smell the patchouli oil as I write this. I would guess probably a vegan too.) Writing programs produce these people if they produce nothing else. Canty does not miss a thing when it comes to describing that fresh hell.

Richard and Erika have two things in common. They are both broken and they drink. They are poets but there is little time for poesy here; it would get in the way of the drinking. Their relationship is forged over pints of Johnny Walker. They drink scotch in Winslow's office, in his apartment, in bars, in motels and hotels. They drink and they talk the sad talk of drinkers. They drink so much that they do not even remember whether they had sex. And what sex there is here is sad too.

Richard and Erika have taken Baudelaire's advice thirstily to heart, and are drunken always and crucifyingly hungover the rest of the time; sick as only the brown waters can make you sick -- guilty, frightened, lonely. They fail at everything and in the end, they even nearly fail to love one another. Nearly. But it is that final twist that allows them redemption and, in the end, redeems Canty's depressing but often moving novel.

From the first pages, where Winslow allows his wife to slip away, to a later encounter with a younger female professor at the college, the sort of woman who might save him, Winslow makes one bad decision after another. And he knows it. But he is in love even if he is old and fat and drunk. But, as Shakespeare said, "Love is not love which alters when it alteration finds" and all that. In the end, love will be his end.

Realizing that he should not be getting mixed up with Erika Jones, Winslow tells himself: "MISTAKE, MISTAKE, MISTAKE his inner man was screaming at him. She was somebody else's girlfriend, somebody else's trouble. There was nothing in this for him but heartache and trouble -- and this is what his inner man wanted, too, he wanted trouble. Maybe there was writing in it somewhere."

Self-indulgence aside, Winslow knows that Erika Jones is a fatal attraction. He sees her as a muse and he has been without a muse for a long, long time. It is an understandable mistake, but one with terrible consequences. I was reminded of the late American novelist Nelson Algren's oft-quoted advice that might have saved Richard Winslow and Erika Jones: "Never sleep with anyone whose troubles are worse than your own."

Christopher Corbett is the author of Orphans Preferred: The Twisted Truth and Lasting Legend of the Pony Express. He is at work on another book about the 19th-century West. He lives in Baltimore.

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