'A Doubter's Almanac' brings deep insight to a story of genius squandered

The son of a mathematical prodigy seeks – with compassion – to understand his father and his wasted gifts.

A Doubter's Almanac By Ethan Canin Random House 576 pp.

Hansel and Gretel have nothing on Milo Andret. The Michigan boy can find his way home from the middle of the forest, no pebbles, breadcrumbs, or map required.

Growing up in a silently oppressive house near Cheboygan, in A Doubter’s Almanac, Milo spends more time in the 350 acres of woods than with his parents, both of whom have thoroughly abandoned ambition. His dad survived a World War II shipwreck to become a science teacher, while his mother, who graduated summa cum laude in chemistry, works as a secretary.

Milo, a loner who is bored by math but gets good grades in science out of respect for his dad, can accurately picture where he is on earth at every moment – and can draw in exact, perfect detail anything he is looking at.

He has such intense powers of concentration it borders on the monomaniacal. One summer the teen carves a 25-foot looping chain out of a felled beech, with no seam or glue, and stores it in a hollowed trunk.

After high school, he spends the next few years working at a gas station, before a Berkeley professor identifies him as the kind of mathematical genius who comes along once a generation. Disclaimer: No knowledge of proofs or theorems is required to enjoy Ethan Canin’s excellent eighth novel. He treats alternately treats math like elegant poetry or infuses it with crackling energy. (There’s a great chapter where Milo discovers computers that is has the forward momentum of a spy novel.) In both cases, it can be admired from a safe distance by the English majors of this world.

At Berkeley, Milo tackles one of the Everests of math, the Malosz conjecture – and begins his own “puny assaults on the heavens,” as his mentor describes higher mathematics. Milo is as methodical about topology as he was about carving the chain. While those of us who never made it to AP calculus may laugh out loud at the claim that “success in mathematics is in good part a question of merely wanting badly enough to look,” a punishing work ethic and teeth-gritted determination look pretty familiar – and yield results in almost any field.

A professorship at Yale and a Fields medal later, Milo’s mathematical abilities are second only to his ego, his attractiveness to women, and his ability to drink. And that’s when Canin announces on page 283 that he’s been tricking us all along: The narrator is not Milo, but rather his son, Hans, who is trying to capture “his logical brilliance, his highly purified arrogance, his Olympian drinking, his caustic derision, his near-autistic introversion, and his world-class self-involvement.”

He’s telling the story of his father’s life, he says, “to understand the truth about him, including the idea that he can’t entirely be blamed for what he did to us, and for what he did to himself, and for what happened to him.

“I haven’t left much out – only the few particulars that I truly can’t bear to record,” Hans says.

Hans describes himself as a failed mathematician (albeit one who made a fortune in derivatives). He’s followed his father into addiction and his grandfather into teaching high school, and he’s looking for answers that go beyond biology.

 Neither of Milo’s children escaped his foray into fatherhood unscathed. Milo’s brilliant, neglected daughter, Paulie, describes her dad as “the quicksand my life is built on.”

How someone who cannot get physically lost can so profoundly lose his way is the rueful question at the heart of Canin’s elegy for a prodigy. Hans’s unwillingness to write off his dad as a womanizing, alcoholic monster gives the novel a poignancy it needs to avoid being yet another clichéd portrait of a genius who handcrafted his own downfall. (Milo’s inexhaustable drinking ultimately takes a toll on his body in ways that can be painful for his family to witness – and even for a reader to read.)

“[Brilliance] is just an obsessive kind of love,” Hans says at one point. “[F]aith and love – that’s what it comes down to.”

The second statement may be true, but it also can sound trite. It’s Canin’s ability to chronicle the first that gives the novel its fuel and poignancy.

Take Milo’s ability to reproduce in pencil or ink anything his eyes see with the accuracy of a computer printer, which he treats as a party trick.

“To his own mind, in truth, his actual gift seemed closer to a form of idiocy. It was as though he didn’t see the object he was drawing but the entire array of space instead – all things that were the object and all things that were not the object – with equal emphasis,” Canin writes. “It was symptomatic of something he’d noticed in himself since childhood – an inability to take normal heed of his senses, the way other people did as they instinctually navigated a course of being. In this way, it was like mathematics itself: the supremacy of axiom over experience. He wondered why others didn’t see this.”

His son’s chronicling of his life is the reverse.

 “Does one grow wise in increments? By fractioning a life and then summing it?” Hans asks.

 In “A Doubter’s Almanac,” one does.

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