Advertisement
YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

BOOK REVIEW

'Where the Money Went' by Kevin Canty

Set in the American West, this story collection renders the telling moments when lives change -- not always for the better.

July 14, 2009|Gregory Beyer

Midway through Kevin Canty's new story collection, "Where the Money Went," a man climbs into bed beside his wife. It has been a long, trying day: Their 4-year-old son Walter, who occasionally bites other children, has sunk his teeth into the arm of a day care classmate.

" 'Things will get better,' I whisper.

" 'I don't know,' she says without turning. Then, after a moment, she says, 'Things will get different.'

"Then, a few minutes later, when I am sure she is asleep and I am awake beside her and thinking about money, she says, 'I can feel it coming.' "

"Where the Money Went" abounds in such vaguely prophetic moments. Like a backroom film projectionist, Canty cues to the moments when his characters realize that, due to past blunders or to present forces beyond their control, their lives are about to change. Often, as in the case of Walter, the surface action -- the bite itself -- is merely a summons of life's latent discontents. In negotiating the fallout of Walter's bite, Walter's father is forced to confront the long-standing, shelved fractures of his marriage, providing him with new perspectives of his loyalties and responsibilities to Walter; to his touchy, distant wife; and to himself.

In striving to chart such shifts in consciousness, Canty has taken up one of the short story writer's enduring, most challenging tasks. In these stories, set against the hot and dusty backdrop of the American West, Canty, the author of three previous novels and two story collections, proceeds from a point of past trauma: divorce, a car wreck, the death of a spouse.

In "The Emperor of Ice Cream," a young man named Lander visits his semi-dysfunctional family on a lake in Bigfork, Mont., where his financially strained father's midlife crisis has revealed itself in the form of a large motorboat costing a thousand dollars to fill with gas. Lander sees his younger brother Tim for the first time since the accident: Earlier that summer, Lander turned left into the path of an oncoming pickup, which killed the other driver and injured Tim, who was in the passenger seat, so that he now seems like "some small shrunken version" of his former self. The sight of his brother causes Lander to feel "a pang of fear run through him at the damage done."

Before the story is over, Lander will again unwittingly put his brother in harm's way, and even, in one of Canty's finest ironic twists, profit romantically by doing it. But like Walter's bite, Lander's kiss at the story's end is neither the beginning nor the end of the situation; it will further complicate Lander's already tenuous relationship with Tim long after the story's final sentence, deepening the uneasiness he felt after his first conversation with Tim at Bigfork: "Lander looked into his brother's face: small, hurt, closed. They were not in this together. They had always been before, always together."

Canty's prose moves quickly, occasionally draining into pools of sentimentality. He tends, in key moments, to venture a clause too far, appending grandiose flourishes to otherwise capable passages: "She stands awkwardly in front of me, not knowing what to say or where to put her body, and I can see into her, the bleeding core." And the stories suffer from a narrative tendency toward absurdly telegraphic weather clues (these stories would benefit from an editor's removal of any mention of gathering clouds and tectonic plate shifts).

At his best, though, Canty elides interference.

As his characters hesitantly turn corners, Canty is most effective when he restrains the impulse to endow emotional moments with rhetorical heavy-handedness and simply depicts the world through his characters' eyes, allowing for the simple acknowledgment that, in life, recognition or expectation of a change begets fresh, full attention to the world, its materials and surprises.

In "Burning Bridges, Breaking Glass," Rossbach, a married man and recovering alcoholic, meets Karen, a married Ohioan, at a wellness clinic on an Arizona ranch. They couple up, knowing their affair will end when one of them goes home, as Karen soon does. Returning to his bland Montana life, Rossbach checks in vain for phone messages from Karen, pours himself a Scotch on the rocks and watches the ice melt. After a week, he flies unannounced to Ohio, where he drives his rented car through her little town.

"It was June in Ohio, full glorious spring with flowers bursting out of the driveway beds and bees everywhere. Rossbach had forgotten. He had grown up in Michigan himself and all he remembered was the flat, tobacco-colored sunlight and the color of that yellow brick you saw everywhere. That and fireflies was summer. That and dirty snow. But this fullness, this bee-loud-buzzing, pink-and-purple spring he had forgotten."

--

Beyer's work has appeared in several publications, including the New York Times, Columbia Journalism Review and McSweeney's.

Advertisement
Los Angeles Times Articles
|
|
|