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Book Review : 'Emperor': Variations on Few Themes

February 03, 1988|RICHARD EDER | Times Book Critic

Emperor of the Air by Ethan Canin (Houghton Mifflin: $15.95; 179 pages)

"Emperor of the Air," Ethan Canin's first collection of short stories, is a series of shots that find their target with devastating accuracy and frequent grace. It is target-shooting, to be sure, with pauses to reposition and set up. It is not quite the same as pursuing a live and recalcitrant quarry through swampland, and having to take the shots that the chase allows.

"Emperor" consists in large part of close variations on a few themes. They tend to come in sets. Four are about the warfare between fathers and growing sons. In two of these, the father is absent, literally or by self-absorption; the result is what a Roman historian described as making a desert and calling it peace. In the other two, the father is close and demanding; after the rebellion, comes reconciliation and rebuilding.

Two stories have old men coming to terms with the prospect of death. Two others, less closely linked, touch upon the encirclement that lack of privilege places around American lives; the American dream, they suggest in one fashion or another, can be properly dreamed only by those who can afford a luxury mattress.

Canin's images are highly charged, closely packed and worked out with care and meticulousness. They are neatly anchored in whatever realistic setting Canin has selected; there is hardly a break between their prosaic roots and their mythical tops.

Slipping From His Grasp

The title story suggests some of this. Its narrator, a retired astronomer, is traveling through old age and finding that life is beginning to recede from his grasp. His wife goes off on hiking trips and nude swimming in mountain lakes. His elm tree, also old, is being undermined by insects. And his neighbor, armed with a chain saw, comes over and asks to be allowed to cut it down to keep the blight from spreading.

The old man defends his elm, threatened by time, disease and the world's insistence on burying the dead and moving on. He tries poison, but the insects come back. He toys with violence, going so far as to collect a jar-full of the insects to deposit in the roots of his neighbor's trees.

But while lurking in the neighbor's garden at night, his face painted black, he overhears the man pointing out the constellations to his son. He doesn't know the names--he is a builder and uneducated--so he invents them: "Mermaid's Tail, Emperor of the Air." It is a lesson for the narrator; the human spirit is universal. "Look up at the stars," he tells the newspaper delivery boy when he arrives before sun-up, reminded of what he should be doing himself instead of clinging to his life and his elm's.

The star-gazing image recurs in one of the father-son stories, "Star Food." The son of a grocery store owner is torn between his father's gentle insistence that he must be practical and help out, and his mother's urging that he must be impractical and dream. He lies on the store roof and looks at the stars; he avoids confronting a shoplifter because she intrigues him.

And then, looking skyward again, he sees four jet fighters hurtle by. Human industry also makes stars, and it must be fed. The boy helps his father catch the shoplifter. Then he lets her go. The balance between father and mother, between the world as work and the world as dream, is maintained.

It is maintained altogether perfectly and with an altogether excessive administration of symbols. There is a bloodlessness in Canin's stories and, above all, a sense that he is using life to illustrate his patterns, rather than discerning patterns in the life he invents.

Even in the other father-son stories, where there is more a sense of passion and unpredictability, each encounter and transaction are attached with significance. There are no half-loaded wagons in Canin's train. Cheever sometimes comes to mind in terms of craftsmanship and sudden loftiness, though not of heart. Canin's loftiness is there from the start. It is genuine, and so is his sensibility, his silken control, and his gift for a phrase that will quietly and suddenly flip a story onto its back and reveal its gaudy and protesting under-quarter.

His epiphanies are first-rate, and they are also everywhere. They do not transform the stories; they virtually are the stories. Their schooling is flawless but they don't seem able to take recess, which is where, at any school and in stories, as well, the mud, the bruises and the glory are inflicted.

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