Setting the past and the present right

Ethan Canin's latest novel marks another dash into new territory

Don't peg Ethan Canin.

He slogged through Harvard Medical School. But now he teaches writing at the University of Iowa.

Critics hailed him as a master of the short story. But then he published a novel.

His previous book was a lush bestseller about disillusioned college students. But now he's written an elliptical story about a 78-year-old Jewish man haunted by World War II.

Predictability may be the only thing Canin can't do well. But that's all the better for this novelist. Indeed, "Carry Me Across the Water," his latest, is a novel full of graceful surprises.

It tells the story of August Kleinman, a retired American businessman, whose long life intersected many of the most powerful forces of the 20th century.

When August's mother abandoned her wealthy husband in Germany and fled from the Nazis with her children, she saved August's life and set him on a path toward the American dream.

Over the next 50 years, he fought the Japanese during World War II, raised a happy family, started his own brewery, resisted the mob, told Lyndon Johnson he was a coward, and finally retired with more than $10 million wisely invested with A.G. Edwards.

It's an extraordinarily successful life, but not a particularly unusual one. Indeed, it's composed of archetypal American elements.

What makes it fascinating, though, is Canin's treatment. He's managed to construct this story in a series of short moments that glide back and forth in time as effortlessly as memory. The effect is compelling. The scenes are inconspicuously marked in a way that keeps their disorder from ever being confusing or disorienting.

The novel opens with an unsigned love letter written by a Japanese soldier in the China Sea. It's a missive of desperate longing and pitiable fatality. August keeps it in a mahogany frame in his Boston condominium, amid a small collection of expensive artworks.

But through the scenes that follow, from his boyhood in smoldering Germany to his retirement in the pricey Back Bay, this letter exercises a quiet influence on him, a mixture of dread and duty.

Gradually, we come to see the awful moment when August took that letter in a pitch-black cave. It's a scene of pure terror, and like so many other very different moments in this story, it's purely told. Whereas Canin's previous novel, "For Kings and Planets," gushed with waves of romantic prose, "Carry Me Across the Water" is a still pond.

In the wake of his wife's death and the shadow of his own illness, August bravely contemplates his life, not as something past, but as something to be finished with careful responsibility. Chief among his challenges is "the problem of money," how to hold it amid so much misery and how to dispense it without upsetting others' lives.

More problematic is the difficulty of loving a morose son who's now grown and a father himself, but no less perplexing than ever. He struggles to make sense of this young man's Judaism, a faith whose melody August finds he can no longer hear.

And always in the background, he considers how to respond to what happened in the China Sea, how to repent for doing one's duty, how to gain forgiveness from a victim long dead.

From its beautiful title to its close, this is a novel of remarkable restraint and haunting depth. It's impossible to know where Canin will go from here, but we should look forward to following him.

Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. Send e-mail comments to charlesr@csps.com.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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