Still waters run shallow

Ethan Canin’s new novel feels stilted and contrived

It is possible to describe a man crying without conveying even a touch of emotion. I came to this realization while reading the following passage from California author Ethan Canin’s most recent novel, Carry Me Across the Water:

"… It was not until he was seated again in the car that he let loose and wept … In the chill wind from the open window, the activity felt something like exercise. He bellowed and shook, then thrust his head out the window to clear it. Finally he said, ‘It’s okay, sweetheart. We’re all going to be fine.’ “

The fact that this scene takes place at what should be the emotional nadir of the book is an indication of the novel’s ramshackle makeup. Most of the confusion stems from the novel’s main character, August Kleinman, the previously mentioned weeper. His first boss describes him with few words: “Good Initiative … Average Intelligence. Clean Dress. Arrogant.” Kleinman agrees with this assessment, but Canin does little to fill the character out for the reader. Instead, Kleinman becomes a grab bag of larger-than-life traits that seem out of tune with the intimate story at hand.

My list of favorites: When August is sent off to the Pacific during World War I, while the rest of his shipmates take a last stab at freedom, he spends the day “reading a William Saroyan novel at the foot of [San Francisco’s] Coit Tower.” Later, he kills a man trying to extort money from him; the situation weighs on his conscience for about two pages before it is forgotten entirely. But the letter of condolence from Ladybird Johnson on the passing of Kleinman’s wife tops my personal list of unnecessary inflation of the protagonist’s resumé.

Canin writes a clean, linear prose, a style that requires a fine feel for detail to give a full sense to a story. His economy often leads to stilted and unnatural dialogue, as in this exchange between Kleinman and his daughter-in-law, Claudine:

“What is that?” said Kleinman.

Jimmy [Kleinman’s son] let his hand fall.

“Here,” Claudine said. “Do it like this.”

“Right,” he said. “That did feel a little wrong. It’s been a long time.”

“That’s right—one hand there, like that. Good. They like to be bounced.”

Wow. Right. Talk about moving the story forward and painting a picture.

The fact that the story itself is hackneyed does little to overcome Kleinman’s flawed characterization. Two intertwined storylines are developed in Carry Me Across the Water, one concerning the relationship with his family and financial legacy and the other a housecleaning of a guilty conscience. Because the story jumps tangentially between different periods of Kleinman’s life, the author never provides a clear, compelling vision of his protagonist. Instead, readers are left to piece together a fragmented character that seems more unreal as the novel moves toward its conclusion. By the time Kleinman arrives in Japan seeking closure, what is meant to be a rich summation of his life feels more like a contrived attempt at plucking the heartstrings.

I had the feeling as I read the book that herein was a framework for a much more accomplished work, a notebook of sorts to get Canin himself across the water to more fertile writing territory. I look forward to meeting him on the other side.