College Friends Confront Life

For Kings and Planets

By Ethan Canin

Random House

335 pp., $24.95

Last month when lists of great books made headlines, "The Great Gatsby" scored high with the old fogies from Random House and the hipsters at Radcliffe College. Though it enjoyed only modest sales when published in 1925, nowadays everybody loves Fitzgerald's brief novel about a glamorous gangster and his doomed quest for status and love.

I kept thinking about that masterpiece as I read Ethan Canin's new novel, "For Kings and Planets." This is another story about an introspective Midwesterner who goes to New York and gets caught up with a dazzling, deceptive friend. Like Fitzgerald, Canin has developed a luxurious style that risks being maudlin, and he romanticizes narcissistic young men so beautifully that you almost forget how pompous they are.

The novel opens in 1974 on the day Orno Tarcher arrives with his parents at Columbia University. He wanders around New York City in awe of its grandeur. Desperately aware that he's left the simplicity and morality of his home in Cook's Grange, Mo., he's delighted when another student introduces himself and gives him access to a world of wealth, brilliance, and sophistication.

Marshall inspires awe in everyone who knows him (including, unfortunately, the author). Forced to study throughout his childhood by a brilliant, but loveless, father, Marshall can recall everything he's ever read, and he's read just about everything ever written. He never studies for tests, but aces every one.

He's ironic and brooding, alternately ingratiating and critical. In a cloud of drugs and alcohol, he reigns over a group of cafe intellectuals in black pants and T-shirts who gather each night to trade pseudoprofundities. At 20, "Marshall had already lived a life of spectacular worldliness," and for Orno, who considers himself a hopeless hayseed, he offers escape from a world of dull responsibilities and routines.

For reasons Orno can never understand, Marshall is equally drawn to him. He's impressed by how diligently Orno works just to earn average grades. He's charmed by Orno's simple faith in the decency of people. But finally, he envies Orno's homespun morality and takes a wicked delight in contaminating his Midwestern friend with his own malaise and degenerate values.

The narrator observes, "For Orno it was as though he were watching himself; or, not watching himself but watching a young man he partially recognized, taught one way his whole life but now behaving in another; he was adrift in ecstasy.... Marshall laughed, deeply pleased by this kind of moral ruin."

When his father takes a train from Missouri to visit him in the Big Apple, Orno is filled with shame for his common origins, but Mr. Tarcher slices through his son's pretensions: "I see you've become a dandy.... Your grades are poor. You're wearing a velvet jacket. There's an ashtray in here." Orno reacts angrily to this reproof, but a growing awareness of his own aimlessness gradually forces him back on task. While Marshall drops out of school and pursues a corrupting but prosperous Hollywood career, Orno trudges reluctantly through dental school.

Unfortunately, these characters never move beyond this simplistic dichotomy between glamorous amorality and stodgy respectability. The third-person narrator records their midnight riffs about the emptiness of life without a touch of irony. At times, hearing these two well-off young men lament the difficulty of their lives is like listening to models whine about their weight.

Nevertheless, with this book Canin may have a runaway bestseller on college campuses. Students often imagine they're choosing between "two roads in a yellow wood" that will determine the rest of their lives. This beautifully styled novel romanticizes that stark choice too sentimentally for anyone over 30. But Orno's recovery is a welcome show of resistance to the moral decay that seems so alluring to him throughout the novel.

* Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor.

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