Like F. Scott Fitzgerald, whose The Great Gatsby is clearly a paradigm for this new novel, Ethan Canin writes about men struggling to shape a life different from the one they inherited. His fiction often involves an escape, or attempted escape, from family and social roots. In that escape, lies must sometimes be told, and the truth of one's character gets blurred almost to a vanishing point. The suspense in Canin's writing comes from our fascination with determining just where that escape will lead and what final truth if any will settle on his characters.
For Kings and Planets is the story of two young men a naive Missourian and a worldly New Yorker who meet as undergraduates at Columbia University in the 1970s. Orno Tracher is ostensibly the Gatsby figure, looking to the East as New World, a place of culture and vice where he can reinvent himself. Yet he will forever find that he is pulled back to conventional values and mores no matter where he lives. Marshall Emerson, the sophisticate Orno meets his first day in Manhattan, is the son of intellectuals, seemingly at home in the bohemia that both attracts and repels Orno. The novel takes both men through their 20s, as Marshall drops out of Columbia to sell his soul to Hollywood, and Orno, after much agonizing, goes to dentistry school and embarks on an affair with Marshall's sister Simone. Neither of these decisions seems to please Marshall, and he will try to undermine them both.
Canin, whose prose is always sharply focused while subtle, makes Orno a fairly simple fellow but never allows us too firm a grasp on Marshall, a consummate liar who, at times, may not understand some of his own motivations. Self-destructive and mercurial, he baffles the nonetheless faithful Orno. It is these two and not the assorted women in their lives who make this a psychologically intricate and satisfying novel. For all the liaisons in the book, Canin never writes blatantly about sex, and the women his protagonists sleep with even share tell us more about the men than about themselves. He is a great suggester and knows his strengths, which are more of the Henry James than the John Updike variety.
For Kings and Planets is Ethan Canin's fourth book. His first, Emperor the Air, is a brilliant collection of stories and his third, The Palace Thief, a superb set of novellas. His earlier novel, Blue River, is not his finest work, but with this rich narrative Canin shows he can sustain the longer form. More than that, he triumphs in it.