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In his latest novel, Ethan Canin tells the story of a potentially Faustian bargain -- a story in which the hero, from first chapter to last, is tempted to mortgage his soul. Canin recognizes that selling out to the devil is old hat as themes go and that the truly interesting version of this story focuses on the pitting of integrity against charisma. For Orno Tarcher -- a self-described "hayseed" from Cook's Grange, Mo., who comes east to attend Columbia University -- the glamour and intellectual diversions of New York City are "a seduction." At the heart of that seduction is Marshall Emerson, a fellow freshman with an academic family, a liar's charm and a photographic memory -- he dazzles friends by reciting whole pages of their textbooks verbatim.
Orno worships Emerson's sophistication: "The world of influence seemed astoundingly close and even more astoundingly pedestrian, tossed off by Marshall with a nonchalance that Orno soon found himself cultivating." Thralldom is among Canin's central subjects. In Emperor of the Air, his first short story collection, men and boys, mesmerized by larger-than-life individuals, must come to grips with their attraction to a wildness they don't seem to share. Canin is intrigued by the suspect nature of the worshiper and by the worshipee's uncanny ability to understand and exploit admiration. In his story "American Beauty," an erratic and sometimes sadistic man tells his adoring 16-year-old brother, "You're a bastard, too ... You just don't know it yet."
Orno is no bastard, and therein lies one of the novel's strengths. To Canin's credit, the love affairs, drinking and one-upmanship of Marshall's set are not the primary charms of the story. Equal time and affection are lavished on describing Orno's academic struggles. A midterm in dental school, where Orno winds up after a less-than-brilliant undergraduate career, is unaccountably riveting. Even teeth -- which are numbered, "not named for kings or planets" -- ave their own romance. In half a line, Canin perfectly captures how ambivalent his hero is about overreaching; Orno, atop the Empire State Building, finds that "the overpowering views [fill] him with fear not of falling but of flying upward."
For Kings and Planets is clearly intended as a paean to the beauty of leading an ordinary life. Unfortunately, Orno's sturdiness is so overdrawn that it sometimes feels like a put-on (which, alas, it isn't). Arriving in New York with "hopes of deeds and glory," he remembered thinking, "I am no longer among my own." Such B-movie lines undercut the novel's force and complexity. Canin pretends that the fate of Orno's soul is up for grabs, when no one -- not even the world's biggest hayseed -- could mistake which way the wind is blowing. Apparently, the moral of For Kings and Planets is not that nice guys finish first or last, but that they speak in clichés and graduate at the middle of their dental school class.
But it isn't until a disastrous vacation with Marshall's family on Cape Cod that Orno begins to distance himself. He resumes studying, graduates from Columbia, goes on to dental school, and begins a satisfying romance with Simone, Marshall's bright, good-hearted sister. Marshall, now a jaded young movie producer, and his parents mobilize to prevent Simone's marriage to someone, it turns out, they consider a social inferior. Their efforts set in motion a series of revelations about Marshall's long history of duplicity and instability. Orno's struggle to come to terms with his erstwhile friend, and his efforts to articulate his own sense of values, are depicted with clarity and subtlety. But while the narrative is deft, it isn't terribly deep; many of the characters seeming lurid and unsurprising, and theupheavals predictable. As the story of a dangerous friendship, not on the level of, say, A Separate Peace. But it does feature vigorous prose, a memorably affectionate portrait of Manhattan, and, in Orno, a thoroughly engaging protagonist.
"Indeed there is," said Orno.
"It looks like a goose," called Marshall from the kitchen. "If you stare at it. Heading away from you with its wings out."
Professor Emerson closed his eyes for a moment. "Indeed it does," he said.
For the rest of dinner Orno was shy to speak, though the Emerson-Pelhams still prodded him with questions about Marshall's life at school, and though he still answered them as carefully as he could, glancing at Marshall for direction, steering his stories away from what really went on in his room, the dope and late nights and pillows spread along the floor. Marshall had come back from the kitchen with a tall glass and he sipped it as Orno told his parents a mild version of their lives together at college.
Suddenly Simone said, "All you're doing is asking him about Marshall. I'm sure he'd rather talk about other things, such as his own life, for one. Please excuse us, Orno."
"That's okay," said Orno. "Marshall's fun to talk about, aren't you?"
"Of course he is," said Mrs. Pelham, "but Simone's right. We can be like that sometimes, although it's only because Marshall won't tell us anything himself. He wouldn't tell us himself if he won the Nobel Prize."
"Well," said Marshall, "I haven't."
"But you'll tell us if you do?" said his mother.
"Well then, Orno," said Professor Emerson, "I understand you're from Missouri."
"Marshall says your family knows the Vanderbilts."
"Marshall says what?"
"I said he knew someone named Helen Vanderbilt," said
"Oh, Helen Vanderbilt," said Orno. "She used to live in New York City. I guess I must have told you about that. She's a friend
of my uncle's. She was the one who encouraged me to apply to
"I see," said Professor Emerson. "Well then, what is St. Louis like? I was there during the--during the war for a time. Damn," he said, touching his throat. "I believe I'm developing a stutter."
"Don't be silly," said Mrs. Pelham.
"Anyway," he said. "I remember St. Louis. A broad city, expansive, no high-rises to dilute the sunlight. Dusty air, though. I
remember the dusty air. It used to cling to everything, cover everything." He cleared his throat. "Does my voice sound funny to anyone?"
"It sounds fine, Daddy," said Simone.
"I've actually never been to St. Louis," said Orno.
"Orno's not much of a traveler," Marshall said into his glass.
"Well then," said Professor Emerson. He coughed.
"Come on, everyone," said Simone, "that's not all we can come up with to say, is it?
Orno looked down.
"What classes are you taking, Orno?" said Mrs. Pelham.
He told them, and then when she asked what he planned to major in he discussed that too, telling them first that his father thought medicine was a noble and reliable profession, but not going further, about his uncle Clarence or the law, because he could tell that Professor Emerson wasn't interested; he was pinching the skin on his own neck. Mrs. Pelham asked him about Cook's Grange and he was even more brief about that. Only Simone seemed to be listening, really, nodding her head as he spoke; when she looked at him now, he saw that her eyes were like Marshall's, a deep lower rim and the trace of a distant, Asiatic fold.
As soon as the meal was done, Marshall told his parents they were due back at the dormitory for a party, and to Orno's surprise the whole family disappeared into different parts of the house while the dishes were still out on the table. Mrs. Pelham said she had some letters to write and climbed the stairs; Marshall told Orno he needed to collect some things before they could go back to school, then left him in the dining room and disappeared toward the rear of the house; Simone smiled at him, then went into the kitchen with a few of the dishes in her hands. Orno was left alone in the dining room with Professor Emerson, unable to think of what to say. In Cook's Grange his sister cooked and it was his own job to clean up: he rose and began gathering plates.
Professor Emerson sat watching him for a moment; then, without speaking, he too rose and left.
In the kitchen Simone had filled the sink with soap and was scrubbing pots. "You shouldn't do that," she said without turning around. "You're a guest."
"Not at all."
"It's the servants' day off."
Orno went back out to the dining room.
"I was just kidding," she said when he returned, not looking back at him but nodding toward the wall. "They're just pretending they're used to servants."
"You never know."
She rolled up the sleeves of her blouse and tucked her hair under her collar, which made her look older. "Marshall was raised in a barn," she said.
"Where I'm from that's a compliment."
She turned around. "Oops. Sorry. Is it really?"
"No." He went to the bookshelf and examined its rows of expensive travel books, one on Istanbul. He pulled it out and touched the lacquered photograph on the cover: he recognized the Haghia Sophia.
"I don't think any of us have even been near a barn," she said. "That's why you're so exotic."
"That's why I'm so what?"
He laughed. "I'm exotic?"
"Yes. A tiny bit."
He opened the book to a picture of the Egyptian market called Misir Carsisi, which Marshall had once described for him: the spices from all corners of the globe, the teeming domed chambers. He fingered the smooth page. "Did you go with them?" he asked.
He pointed. "Here."
She looked at him.
"To Istanbul," he said.
She turned back to the sink. "No," she answered. "I stayed right here, doing the dishes."
He put the book back, then made several trips out to the table, returning to scrape the bones into the trash and then arrange the china behind her into stacks of cups, saucers, and plates. He'd erred, he realized, by bringing it up: she seemed suddenly chilled. But he wondered why she hadn't gone along; perhaps she'd been too young. Each time he came in with his hands full he wanted to say something funny, or something that truly was exotic; but even the kitchen, with its odd-colored crockery and hanging paraphernalia, robbed him of ease; she was working intently at the sink and he was aware of overstepping. "That's it," he said finally. "Table's done."
"You were sweet to help out."
"Learned it in the barn."
"I didn't insult you did I? I didn't mean to."
"Not in the least. You flattered me. I thought I might have insulted you."
She turned around and leaned against the sink. "Marshall talks about you a lot," she said.
"Well, Marshall's great."
She raised her eyebrows. "I think so too," she said. "But don't be too impressed with him, either."
"How do you mean that?"
"Oh, you seem sweet, that's all. Not everybody around here is."
"What do you mean?"
"I apologize for what my father said about Professor Menemee Scott."
"You don't have to. It didn't bother me. Your father's amazing."
"My father works at being amazing."
"I think he succeeds, don't you?"
Just then, before Orno had heard any footsteps, Marshall burst through the swinging door into the kitchen. "I suppose my sister's giving you the lowdown," he said. He was wearing a velvet smoking jacket Orno didn't recognize.
"At least Orno helps out," she answered. "Maybe he could teach you some of that. Maybe you should consider a little independent study."
"Orno's studying too much already," said Marshall. He leaned forward and kissed her on the cheek.
"You would be the one studying, Marshall," said Simone.
"I'll consider it."
Orno wanted to talk more to her but Marshall pulled him toward the door. Then they were in the hallway and all he could do was call out his thank-you to Mrs. Pelham before Marshall grabbed both their coats and led him out into the cold evening. He flagged a cab and when they arrived back at Columbia paid the driver from a roll of bills unfurled from the pocket of the jacket.
There were parties that night, but Orno stayed in. It was his first Thanksgiving away from home, and instead of going out he wrote Mrs. Pelham a thank-you note and then a letter to his sister at Clarkson, telling her story after story of his time in New York. He closed by writing, and they think I'm exotic. Happy Thanksgiving to you. He was breathless as he sat at the Masonite desk by his window, overwhelmed with the sense of a tremendous, brilliant world through the glass that none of the Tarchers had ever seen. The whole thing was stupendous to him--the Emerson family, about whom he was already composing in his head a heated, braggardly letter to his parents; the polished stone buildings of Manhattan; the never-ending thrum of buses and taxis outside, all the way through till the morning; the freshmen in black trousers and black shirts; Marshall's stereo speakers, so light they could have been hollow inside. And they were hollow actually, or nearly so, Orno discovered later that night, when Marshall used his roach clip to pry the cover off one of them and hide his new roll of bills there. They had just smoked half a joint and Orno was waiting for some movement inside of him. He didn't ask where the money was from. Marshall was affectionate when he was high, and he chatted and laughed as he worked the bills into a notch in the narrow cabinet. With the grill removed the speaker was nothing but a black plastic sheet with a round concavity in the middle; Orno stared at it with detached fascination, a rubberish, indented diaphragm whose simple vibration produced the stupendous screaming guitar solos and the low pounding beat of the bass drum that he felt in his bed every night downstairs, a rubber hammer tapping the floor as he drifted off to sleep, the high-hat crashing on the off-beat like shattering glass.
1. In many ways, For Kings and Planets is an examination of friendship. What kind of friendship do Orno and Marshall have? Why are these two seemingly different people drawn together in the first place? How does their relationship change as the novel progresses?
2. The juxtaposition of cities and rural communities figures prominently in Ethan Canin's novel. Discuss the importance of New York in Orno's life. Does his perception of that city alter as he grows older? How? What about Cook's Grange? Why do you think he ultimately decides to settle in the small town of Preston, Maine? What is the significance of Marshall's decision to move to Los Angeles?
3. On page 210, Marshall tells Emerson, "Nobody changes. They just reveal themselves." What do you make of his argument? Does it apply to everyone in For Kings and Planets? Does it even apply to Marshall himself, or do you think he in fact changes?
4. Throughout the novel, Orno struggles to maintain his moral center. How do his brushes with what many would consider immorality-his experimentation with cocaine and his infidelities for example-affect him? What do these conflicts tell us about Orno? Marshall does not seem to aim for uprightness like Orno does. What do we learn about morality from Marshall's ambivalence toward it?
5. Canin writes on page 244, "When he [Orno] came up again, a moose appeared at the edge of the trees. Preston was awfully far south for one, but it wandered down near him and drank, its broad humped shoulders rocking. He felt visited: chance and mystery, the unknowable course of days." How does this passage relate to the novel as a whole? What does Orno learn about chance, the consequences of making choices, and his own power to carve a path for his life?
6. Marshall Emerson and his father have photographic memory, yet they both consistently misrepresent themselves and fabricate the events of their past. What do Professor Emerson's lies about his family roots and Marshall's own invented stories reveal about them? What do these two characters tell us about the nature of truth and memory?
7. On page 181, Simone tells Orno that she's "just the girl who warns the onlookers and keeps her hair pinned up while the ship is sinking." Discuss Simone's role in her family. What is her significance to Marshall and Orno?
8. For Kings and Planets is largely about fathers and sons. How do Orno's and Marshall's respective relationships with their fathers function in the novel? Describe how Marshall's understanding of his father changes and what that shift ultimately teaches him about himself.
About the Author:
Ethan Canin was born in Ann Arbor, Michigan and was, for the most part, raised in San Francisco. He received a medical degree from Harvard University and studied writing at the Iowa Writer's Workshop. In The San Francisco Examiner Magazine, he says of his decision to leave medicine for a career as a writer, "After a year and a half [as a medical intern] I realized that my ambition to be a writer was unkillable. Even if I didn't write for two years, I would read something good and I would just want to write. And I realized that if I had a really high-paying job as a doctor, I would never write again."
In For Kings and Planets, as in his previous books, Canin explores themes of rivalry and frienship, and the consequences of the life decisions we all make. He explains in an interview with The Salt Lake Tribune, "As a writer, I have always been stuck somewhere between the ambitious romantic and the practical man in search of contentment. Those have always been the warring drives for me. These are the sort of tectonic pressures which I seem to write about."
In addition to For Kings and Planets, Ethan Canin has written Emperor of the Air, Blue River, and The Palace Thief. He currently divided his time between California and Iowa.
Posted April 20, 2008
I know that many people would not agree with me, but I thought that this book was Canin's best so far. I loved his writing style and it was very interesting. It was just attractive to me. I loved all the characters. The setting was beautiful, too.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted April 10, 2005
Posted December 24, 2001
The characters aren't going to be reminders of typical next-door neighbors, but by the end of the book, you'll wish they were. The book will make you feel like you're spying on the characters at their most tender or embarassing moments, but you'll feel for them.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted February 10, 2000
Poorly written. Poorly executed. This book was a disappointment. The characters were too stereotyped and experienced no growth throughout the novel. The author should stick to short story writing. I wanted to write him a letter demanding back the time I took to read this book.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted November 24, 2008
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Posted January 28, 2009
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Posted October 10, 2009
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