cover image For Kings and Planets

For Kings and Planets

Ethan Canin. Random House (NY), $24.95 (335pp) ISBN 978-0-679-41963-1

Many qualities that make a novel masterful are present in Canin's fourth book: richly nuanced characterizations, a sensuous sense of place, easy dialogue, controlled pacing and a story that is a classic parable of the human condition. The narrative vigor of this coming-of-age tale is enhanced by Canin's (Emperor of the Air; The Palace Thief) compassionate view of daunting moral complexities and by his acute sensibility about the strengths and flaws that can determine the future of a promising life. When Oren Tarcher comes to Columbia University from a tiny Midwestern town, another freshman, sophisticated New Yorker Marshall Emerson, befriends him. The friendship is unlikely: Oren is earnest, naive, plodding (""He felt the word Missouri written on his forehead""), while Marshall, the son of two eminent Columbia professors, is charming, cynical, brilliant and possessed of an astonishing eidetic memory that indelibly records everything he's ever read. Oren is further awed when he meets the rest of Marshall's family, though he is disturbed by the rancorous exchanges between Professor Emerson and his son. Though Marshall abandons him for months at a time, Oren is always freshly seduced when his mercurial friend lures him from diligent study to debauched gatherings and sexual liaisons, bringing Oren into contact with something chaotic and undisciplined in his own nature. Even when he understands Marshall's essential vulnerability and begins to fathom Marshall's manipulative and self-destructive behavior, Oren is envious of his friend's undoubtedly spectacular future. Oren himself is for a long time unable to find his own vocation, but he finally muddles into dentistry, where--as he apologizes to Marshall, who has quit college to write a novel--teeth are ""not named for kings or planets. They are merely numbers."" By the time Marshall adopts the dissolute life of a major Hollywood producer, Oren has fallen in love with his sister, Simone, and is witness to the last acts of a family tragedy. While the plot unfolds with tragic inevitability, Canin doesn't force the pace of his narrative, subtly providing Oren with insights appropriate to his strong moral upbringing and slow maturation. Meanwhile, he creates a rich gallery of characters and offers a potently atmospheric evocation of New York City and, to a lesser extent, small communities in Cape Cod and Maine. What will most impress readers of this engrossing narrative, however, is the dignity and integrity with which Canin writes about fallible human lives. BOMC and QPB selections; author tour. Agent, Maxine Grofsky; editor, Kate Medina. (Sept.)