Into the Great Wide Open

Into the Great Wide Open

3.8 5
by Kevin Canty

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Building on the success of A Stranger in This World, the widely praised collection of stories that was one of the most exciting literary debuts of recent years, Kevin Canty has written a blistering, unforgettable first novel. Set in the sprawl of suburbia, with its shattered families and hollow lives, Into the Great Wide Open is the story of two young people

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Building on the success of A Stranger in This World, the widely praised collection of stories that was one of the most exciting literary debuts of recent years, Kevin Canty has written a blistering, unforgettable first novel. Set in the sprawl of suburbia, with its shattered families and hollow lives, Into the Great Wide Open is the story of two young people fleeing their families' emotional abandonment to find refuge in each other.

Smart but scarred, Kenny Kolodny yearns to awake from the nightmare of his smashed-up family: his mother is in an institution and forever away; his father is an abusive alcoholic; his brother lives abroad. Seventeen and alone, he hangs on the periphery of his world, until he makes a passionate connection with the troubled, beautiful, fiercely independent Junie Williamson. Kenny discovers in their highly charged, intensely erotic relationship a reality—and a capacity for caring—he has not known before.

In prose startling for its diamond-hard edges and bravura lyricism, Kevin Canty revives the heady carnival of adolescence, evoking its confusing emotional landscape and its heightened sensuality, too soon lost. Into the Great Wide Open is a haunting, mesmerizing novel by a writer of deep sensitivity and undeniable talent.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Praise for Kevin Canty and A Stranger in This World

“Superb. . . . These tautly structured stories breathe with sharp, distilled intelligence, mingling recognition with surprise.” —New York Times Book Review

“These are lean, powerful stories, which is not to say they are lacking in tenderness. Canty knows how to hurt us the way Flannery O’Connor did.” —Los Angeles Times Book Review

James Marcus

Teenage disillusionment is as alive in the 1990s as it was in Holden Caulfield's day, but it's become a hell of a lot more sophisticated. At least that's the impression you get from reading Kevin Canty's first novel, Into the Great Wide Open. The 17-year-old protagonist, Kenny Kolodny, has to contend with an alcoholic father, an institutionalized mother and a mysterious, dysfunctional love object named Junie Williamson. He also has before him the riddle of adulthood, with its casual attitude toward falsehood. "It was interesting," Kevin ruminates at one point, "how much of adult life consisted of pretending. At the country club, for instance, where he worked the summer before, everybody did a lousy job of whatever they were supposed to be doing. . . Nobody was fired, nobody was criticized. They all respected each other. Everything was fine."

This seeming conspiracy on the part of adults has been the subject of many a coming-of-age novel, but Canty writes about it with a peculiar, pained elegance. And Kenny's pet fantasy -- to create a history of the future, complete with "the Trylon and the Perisphere, the Apollo program" -- sounds exactly right for a teenager exhausted by the present, and afraid of what it might turn into five years down the road. If Kenny's voice occasionally sounds too learned, a touch too prose-like, well, there's that sophistication thing I mentioned above. -- Salon

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
As he demonstrated in his praised short-story collection, A Stranger in This World, Canty has a gift for expressing the emotions of lonely, unmoored people. In this tensely controlled and keenly observed first novel, he evokes the bliss, uncertainty and pain of teenage love in an age of sexual freedom, drugs and parental irresponsibility. The protagonist, Kenny Kolodny, is a bright 17-year-old who smokes pot, neglects his schoolwork and strives to hide his bewilderment and vulnerability. Kenny's parents are divorced. His mother is in a mental institution; his father, with whom Kenny lives in a seedy apartment in Washington, D.C., is an abusive alcoholic. Forced to cope with his father's rages, and later to care for him after he has a stroke, Kenny knows he's been robbed of his childhood. What's worse, he can't imagine any future for himself. Kenny recognizes a similarly troubled soul in Junie Williamson, whose two suicide attempts reflect the kind of dysfunctional family life that can occur in a Frank Lloyd Wright house in the affluent suburbs. Though Kenny knows he's considered socially inferior to the Williamsons, he also knows that Junie is "damaged goods'' and thus perhaps not utterly unattainable. To his surprise, he feels genuine love for her, and she for him, and for a while they connect deeply. But their breakup is as inevitable as Kenny's persistent sense of failure. There is remarkable integrity in Canty's depiction of adolescents' secret erotic lives, and of their perceived lack of control that even sexual intimacy does not dispel. Though this is a somber story, there are no cheap effects or melodramatic developments. Canty never forces its heartbreaking truths, which he expresses with elegant restraint and unflinching honesty.
Library Journal
If there were resumes for dysfunction, Kenny Kolodny's would read fairly typically. His mother is in a mental institution, and his father has a serious drinking problem. All of this leads Kenny to smoke dope and is ignore his schoolwork, even though he is extremely bright, understands poetry, and is an excellent writer. However, Canty's (A Stranger in This World, LJ 8/94) creation is not merely the latest model in the line of Holden Caufield updates. Kenny meets Junie Williamson on a church retreat. She promises a sexy, mysterious alternative to his world of smoke-filled basements and suburban car cruising. "What set her off from the others was her hair: it was extreme, it was troubled." Junie comes from a wealthy family but affects the pose that it means little. Additionally, it is rumored that she is a lesbian. They have clumsy, messy, painful sex described in dry, unflinching tones that straddles the line between titillation and tortment, but their immature emotions cannot measure up to the intensity of the bond they seek to create. Canty's hard-boiled style immerses the reader in the timeless currents of adolescence. Kenny's jaded persona is complicated by his expectation of something to trust, something pure. Of course, this is precisely what the world excruciatingly denies him. A cut above the standard teen-in-crisis novel; highly recommended. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 4/1/96.]Adam Mazmanian, "Library Journal"
Kirkus Reviews
First-novelist Canty (stories, A Stranger in This World, 1994) offers a tale of teenage love more engaging in its details than in the full-dimensioned pull of its characters.

Troubled and sensitive Kenny Kolodny is 17 and unhappy at home when he falls in love with his very classy classmate Junie Williamson, winning her away from the girlfriend rumored to be her current lover. Whether Junie has been a lesbian does matter to Kenny (who's got nagging doubts about his own sexual preferences), but nowhere as much as the differences between his family and hers. Junie lives in a good part of town (in a Frank Lloyd Wright house with "rock walls"), her father is a lawyer and her mother—though with troubles of her own—a successful pediatrician. On Kenny's side of the equation are an institutionalized mother and an abusive, deeply alcoholic father. Not surprisingly, he tells Junie little about his family while becoming more and more familiar with hers—and with Junie herself, whose bedroom allows all the privacy and privilege any pair of lovers with hyperindulgent parents carefully looking the other way could possibly wish. Where the true center of Kenny's woes really lies may not always feel completely clear—or real—to the reader, but he's already smoking a lot of dope and well on the way to dropping out of school when he finds his father is felled by a stroke; and when Junie turns up pregnant, Kenny sweeps her up and wafts her westward—though the two don't get far before life turns in a direction they hadn't expected, reasserting itself with a mundane power that will take Junie, if not to college, then toward it, and Kenny back home where for the next ten years, the suggestion is, he'll ache and pine.

Canty can be stylistically engaging, but love at 18, this time around, remains an adolescent affair, however much it strains for the significant and high.

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Product Details

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date:
Vintage Contemporaries Series
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Product dimensions:
5.19(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.56(d)

Read an Excerpt

He met her in a van, in the rain, on his way to the Girl Scout camp by Lake Chincoteague.  An afternoon in mid-October.  Gray rainy light leaked through the windows.  Kenny sat in the last seat of the van, without a thought, without a plan.  Wentworth slept on the seat beside him.

Rainwater snaked its way down the window glass: a little shoot or finger, top left to bottom right, dashing along and then stopping, trembling; then leaping forward, darting from drop to drop, safe harbors, running until they were too heavy to stop, off the window and down onto the road.  Kenny gave them names, like racehorses.  He felt a pleasant sadness when they died on the pavement.

The girls two seats in front of him were talking softly with their heads together.  The others read or dozed, stared out the window.  They were LRYers, Liberal Religious Youth, and Kenny didn't know any of them but Wentworth.  They looked clean and white and rich to Kenny, untroubled. There was another vanload of them, ahead or behind.  They were interchangeable.  You could move them from one seat to another, one van to another.  What did Kenny's father call it? Fungible, from selling corn to the Germans, maybe: no significant difference between one ear of corn and the next.  His father worked in the Department of Agriculture when he was well enough.  His father was an economist, which gave him a distant view of the world.  He was an expert whistler: "Honeysuckle Rose," "Cherokee," "How High the Moon." Kenny caught himself thinking of his father in the past tense.  There was some feeling, anger and shame all mixed together, and Kenny turned his face to the rain and the window so the others wouldn't see it.  Not that any of them were looking.

Empty fields, turnrows of mud.  The farmhouses stood alone in skirts of brown lawn, black skeletons of trees, swing-sets.  Self-reliance, Kenny thought. Miles between us.  The cool clean smell of the air, as opposed to the complicated human smell inside the van: coffee, deodorant, farts, gasoline.

Kenny's father wasn't doing well.  Last seen asleep on the sofa in the living room of the apartment, three in the afternoon.  Kenny shut the TV off, covered his father with a chenille bedspread, took the melted highball off the coffee table, out of harm's way.  That was yesterday afternoon.  Kenny had been living with Wentworth and his family for a week already.  He went home to see if it was safe to return, found his father, covered him with the bedspread like a piece of furniture in one of those big mansions where they covered the furniture with sheets and then left.  Why? Kenny only knew about this from TV, but he knew that feeling, leaving things behind.  Too much like dying: pulling the sheet up and over the body...You morbid little fucker, Kenny thought.  Cut it out.

It was the rain's fault, he decided, that and the black houses standing off from each other.  He was a little stoned, suggestible.  He turned his eyes away from the lonesome countryside.  What would Kerouac say? But Kerouac would never find himself in a van full of Liberal Religious Youth.  Kenny couldn't remember what religion, even—Unitarian? Your parents would let you go because it said Religious in the title, and you got to go on overnight trips with girls, etc., and nobody cared if you got stoned or not.  That was the advance publicity, anyway.  Kenny had always looked down on the LRY people, even Wentworth a little.  Now here he was, not quite through his own choice.  There was no way that Wentworth's parents wanted Kenny around if Wentworth himself was out of the house.  Wentworth was the last of five children.  Kenny could picture the parents, crossing off the days on the calendar until Wentworth left for college.  They were perfectly nice and kindly people, though.  Kenny overheard Wentworth's mom dickering with the LRY leader, trying to make a place for him.  "Well, it's both his parents," she was saying.  "No...No, the mother's not in the picture at this point."

Wentworth's mom sold real estate, a fast, efficient talker, all business.  "If it's just the insurance," she said; then a pause.  "No, no, I understand... Look, I could sign a release.  I mean, if you just needed one."

Kenny had waited like he was being sentenced, sitting in her kitchen.  Mrs. Wentworth was waiting for the other end of the line.  Staring blankly into midair, she suddenly noticed Kenny.  What was she seeing? A naked orphan.  A vulture chick concealed among her own.  A voice buzzed through the telephone line and she brightened all at once.  "Terrific," she said into the handset. "I do appreciate it.  Thank you so much for your help." She hung up the phone and looked at Kenny, brightly.  "You're all set," she said.

Motherless children, Kenny thought.  Her kindness had a public, professional face.  Nevertheless she kept him, made a place for him at dinner.  His own mother was trying her hand at Supported Living, for the second time.  They gave her an apartment, sent somebody around to make sure she took her medications.

Nine of them in the gray light, ghostly, including the counselor who was driving and the counselorette riding shotgun, who kept playing the same tape by the Police.  Blond collegiate androids.  Kenny thought of shaking Wentworth awake, just to get out of his own head.  The rain, the light, the black wet dirt.  Death by water (drowning), by fire (burning), by air (falling), and by earth: disease, decomposition, rot.  Oh yeah, Kenny thought, I sound like a Slayer song, Black Sabbath.  I Am Iron Man.  Still the memory of his own hands pulling the bedspread over his father, gently, trying not to wake him...Chenille, another mystery.  Those little lines and deedlee balls of fuzz didn't make it warmer, they must be for looks.  Which meant that somebody liked it: his mother, who had bought it or kept it.  For the second time in five minutes Kenny found himself confronted with his mother, the lady of Baltimore, stranded for life.  He gave up, surrendered to the gray light and the sadness. Sometimes it was easier just to let it go, let events wash over him and drop the struggle.  Something pleasant in the gray light.  Kenny could do nothing about his mother.  God grant me the something to change what I can, the something to accept what I can't change, the wisdom to know the difference. Serenity, Kenny thought.

His eyes came to rest on the girl two benches up: a head, a neck, slender shoulders in grandmotherly black wool.  Her hair was black, or almost black, and cropped short as a marine's, uneven.  Brain damage, electro-shock therapy. This was interesting, but who was she? He tortured his brain, couldn't come up with her face.  Wentworth had been too stoned to introduce him to anybody before they left, and nobody else had bothered.  Kenny wondered if she'd come by herself, too: the way she now sat, alone and upright, not talking, doing something with her hands—what? Reading probably.  Knitting.  Kenny hoped that she might turn, so he could see her face, but she sat and stayed there, still, unfidgeting, with her back to him.  Shoulders set against him.  She wasn't giving him anything.

He would take what he could, then.  He didn't feel any particular obligation to these soft, settled boys and girls.  He would take what he was given: whatever his ears could hear and his eyes could see, and all the oxygen they weren't using.

Her neck was a delicate, fluted...Her skull was a graceful shape, too, which was good: her hair was easily short enough to show the outline of the bone beneath the skin.  My little coconut.  Kenny thought of how her head might feel in the palm of his hand, the short soft hair and the hard bone.  Drawing her down...a little boyish, too, a little masculine, which was scary.  A girl with a boy's head.  Kenny felt a little stirring, danger or sex, he couldn't tell, he didn't quite care.

The usual number of earrings, seven or eight in her left ear and three in her right.  Her skin, what Kenny could see, was immaculately white, untouched by the summer that had just gone by; an accomplishment in itself.  The fresh-dead look, Wentworth called it.  White skin verging on green, bright red lipstick, was the form.  Kenny wondered.  He sent the thought in her direction: show me your face.  She didn't, the standard fate of his attempts at telepathy.  She wore a black wool cardigan over a black blouse of some kind, a little Peter Pan collar, Kenny could picture it.  All this was normal, safe suburban rebel.

What set her off from the others was her hair: it was extreme, it was troubled.  This was a code word for people like himself.  Nobody safe would cut it quite so short; or, if they did, they would at least do a little better job of cutting it evenly.  Amateur brain surgery, Kenny thought.  It wasn't style.  He pictured her under the bathroom light, lifting her own hair between her fingers and then scissoring it off, as close to the scalp as she could.  Scalp/skull.  The sudden boy in the mirror.

And then the white skin of her neck, the delicate tendons, the dark fuzz of her hair trailing off into short silky animal hairs and then to nothing.  One small red spot on her skin, insect bite or fading pimple.  And what if she had pimples? But none of the children were ugly, their parents wouldn't let them be.  Blank sometimes, though, generic, she might have a face or she might not. I command you to turn.  The usual result.  She reached her left hand behind her back and touched the red spot, scratched it lightly with her nails, put her hand back in front of her: long-fingered, slender, inkstained.  Artistic. Which was almost as good as, almost the same as, troubled.  And the length of her hand made him consider her height, which he calculated from the seat back, touching his own shoulders to guess: his own height, or nearly.  Long Tall Sally.

Kenny found himself with the beginnings of a hard-on, which happened sometimes in buses and trains.  All the bumping and jostling, and his own untrainable dick.  Down boy, he commanded.  I'm doing something.  But his dick wouldn't listen to him; his dick wanted to talk about this body he was looking at, about the white stalk of her neck giving way to the rounded, damaged head, the short hair against the palm of her hand, pulling her close, tall, boyish...You, he thought, I want you.

Then, when he was not expecting her, she stirred in her seat and stretched her neck and then, bored, turned and looked at the rain outside the window and then back at Kenny, directly at Kenny.  He sat there, caught, immobile.  Then saw that he knew her.  It was Junie Williamson.

"Hey," she said to him softly.

"Hey," said Kenny.

"What are you doing here?"

Kenny couldn't think.  It felt like he was wearing his dick on his face.  He needed to say something but he couldn't think of what (the anonymous body suddenly evolving into a person; he wanted the blank body back, the empty place).  "It was Wentworth," he said, just to say something.  "You know Mike Wentworth?"

She shook her head; she couldn't hear him.

"It's sort of by accident," he said.

But she shook her head again, shrugged, a social smile.  She couldn't hear him. She disappeared again, leaving him stranded.  They could talk later.  It didn't help.  Kenny was stuck with a wooden dick, stuck inside himself again, staring out at the houses, black with rain, standing in their skirts of dead grass; but even his melancholy had left him, the comfort of the gray light.  He couldn't take his eyes off her.

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Into the Great Wide Open 3.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 6 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
I remember reading this book's advance copy. I was the same age as Kenny, and I related. Canty taps into the raw heart of the youth, which is different than the facade we know better than to believe.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is one of the most truthful and compelling books I have ever read. It poigniently captures the subtilties of class divide within American culture, and takes an unflinching look both at the prententiousness of the 'cultured' class, and the squalid vacuum of the blue-collar 'American dream'. It seduces the reader to step inside the rich interior of its main character, Kenny; into crevices of the psyche it would not seem possible to capture in words, but somehow Canty suceeds. Brilliantly.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Into the Great Wide Open was a really well-written, captivating book! It wasn't at all like usual weird-teenager book you pick up at a book store; it's deeper, passionate, and refreshing. It did, however, lack a strong ending, like I'd hoped for. It also has a GREAT cover!
Guest More than 1 year ago
I think that it was a good book, the writing was good, story line good. Yes, it did lack some.. but most books do lack something.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I think this book was good in lots of aspects but seemed to be lacking in several areas. I did not mind the graphic sexual content but it seemed that the ending could have been better. It could have ended with more emotion. I read the book and when I got to the end I was like, that's it? I was semi-disappointed but all in all...not a bad book.