cover image The Palace Thief

The Palace Thief

Ethan Canin. Random House Inc, $21 (224pp) ISBN 978-0-679-41962-4

Canin, whose short-story collection Emperor of the Air was justly feted, as his novel Blue River was not, here offers four brilliant longer stories, each seamlessly structured and with prose and characters to linger over. The book's ostensible theme is Heraclitus's observation that character is fate, which is all well and good until we try to understand the meaning of either term. Take Mr. Hundert, the honorable boys' school teacher who in the title story tries to make sense of a student's rise from a cheating dullard to an industrial and political leader. As for the question of character, hardly does a protagonist gain a slippery hold on the essence of another person's character, when a forced self-evaluation occurs: in ``City of Broken Hearts'' a recently divorced man considers his son as alien but in fact, the youth is the one person who sees through--and redeems--his father's bluff boorish exterior. Canin keeps readers so thoroughly engaged that the anticipation of resolution is almost like dread, as in the beautiful and wrenching ``Batorsag and Szerelem,'' in which the narrator recalls the gradual revelation of his family's painful secrets and a quiet secret of his own, the most painful and insidious of all. BOMC and QPB selection; author tour. (Feb.)