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Writer's Own Story Is of a Life Less Ordinary

Unlike His Prosaic Characters, Ethan Canin Travels an Uncommon Path

November 18, 1998|MICHAEL J. YBARRA | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

SAN FRANCISCO — " 'How does your life turn out?' That's the ultimate novelistic question to me," says Ethan Canin. "What's more interesting than the arc of lives?"

Consider his own.

Not long ago, the 38-year-old writer finished what seemed an endless project, the remodeling of his house, a turn-of-the-century Edwardian in the Richmond District here. For much of the last decade he slaved over it, plugging up fireplaces ("who needs five fireplaces?") and nailing hardwood floors into place.

Most impressively, he cut skylights into the attic and wedged bookshelves under the eaves, turning a dark garret into a light- and book-filled office that any writer would kill for.

So, of course, it's time to move.

Canin the carpenter has just become Canin the professor, joining the faculty of the Iowa Writers' Workshop.

Meanwhile, the much-praised craftsman of short fiction has published a second novel that is garnering the kind of critical raves that largely eluded his first. The new book, "For Kings and Planets" (Random House), took two years to write. The story starts in 1974 at Columbia University, where Orno Tarcher, just transplanted from small-town Missouri, meets another freshman, the brilliant and dazzling but utterly inscrutable Marshall Emerson.

Tarcher has high but vague hopes, stumbles through school and into dentistry, and finds fulfillment in his unremarkable corner of the world while Emerson sails through school until he drops out from boredom and then effortlessly establishes himself as a Hollywood writer-producer. Tarcher's character never seems in doubt, but his best friend's is veiled and only slowly revealed as dark and malign.

The novel dwells on motifs that have suffused Canin's fiction since he began publishing stories a decade ago: the heartache of ordinary lives, fraternal struggles, the menace behind shimmering surfaces.

In his first novel, "Blue River" (Houghton Mifflin), the seemingly perfect brother in a Cain and Abel pair likes to drive with his eyes closed at night, a hint of the deeper recklessness that shadows his life.

In "For Kings and Planets," Tarcher expresses amazement at Emerson's impressively accomplished family, but Emerson's sister tries to warn him that the facade is not the truth.

"Our family seal is a snake," she says, "twisted in knots."

It's emotional terrain that many have labeled Cheeveresque. Canin's deeply lived appreciation of human complexity has amazed reviewers who wonder how a young writer, with a seemingly blessed life, arrived at such knowledge.

As Publisher's Weekly said of "For Kings and Planets": "Many qualities that make a novel masterful are present . . . richly nuanced characterizations, a sensuous sense of place, a story that is a classic parable of the human condition. . . . What will most impress readers of this engrossing narrative, however, is the dignity and integrity with which Canin writes about fallible human lives."

Many other reviews have been similarly glowing, although some have found Tarcher just a bit too doltish. ("Apparently, the moral of 'For Kings and Planets' is not that nice guys finish first or last, but that they speak in cliches and graduate at the middle of their dental school class," groused the Web magazine Salon.) But even the harsh evaluations praise Canin for prodigious skill and seem written more in sorrow than in anger, indicating dismay that such a clearly talented writer hasn't reinvented the American novel.

It's an exalted level of criticism that almost seems ironically fitting for a writer whose early efforts were greeted with acres of newsprint effusions and whose own sunny demeanor and apparently charmed existence hide a pronounced streak of darkness.

"I don't think success makes one confident," he said, sipping coffee. "I think it has more to do with character than circumstance. I still don't have much confidence in my writing."

Friendly, tall (almost 6 feet 4), slightly thick in the middle with thick gray hair, he grew up in San Francisco, where his father was a violinist with the San Francisco Symphony. Early on, teachers encouraged his fiction. Danielle Steel, who taught him in high school back in the days when she still needed a day job, was extravagant in her praise. But Canin said he felt the need to pursue a practical or useful career and entered Stanford to become an engineer.

He left with an English degree, then picked up an MFA from the Writers' Workshop at the University of Iowa (although he says he didn't write a word while he was there). His ambivalence about writing claimed him again, and he entered Harvard Medical School--only to write a book of short stories during his first year.

He says he carved writing time out by skipping class. When the book, "Emperor of the Air" (Houghton Mifflin), was published in 1988, the 27-year-old med student became an instant media darling--a serious writer who didn't even seem to want to be one.

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