"Blue River," Ethan Canin's first novel, is a spare, lyric tale of betrayal. It follows his 1988 short-story collection, "Emperor of the Air," which received critical accolades and racked up hefty sales, a rare trick for a book of elegiac and utterly unsensational stories written by a young unknown. "Blue River," then, arrives amid a swarm of expectations probably unmatched since Jayne Anne Phillips' first novel, "Machine Dreams," came out in the wake of her phenomenally successful collection "Black Tickets."
"Blue River" concerns two brothers named Lawrence and Edward. Lawrence, the elder, is a troubled, charismatic figure who starts as a glamorous high school outlaw, turns suddenly into a paragon of righteous behavior, but ends up a bum. Edward, six years younger, is more cautious and moderate. As a boy he reveres his older brother. As a man he practices ophthalmology, starts a family, builds a suburban dream house. His only recklessness is a habit of driving late at night along familiar roads for short distances with his eyes closed.
The narrative begins in the present, with Lawrence, disheveled and broke, showing up unexpectedly on Edward's well-tended doorstep after a 15-year absence. It moves from there into the past, and devotes its long middle section --the greater part of the book--to the two brothers' childhood together in Blue River, Wis. It ends with a code of sorts that picks up the present-day story line. By then, however, we know far more about how each man, as a boy, made his fate. Both are traitors, each in his own way.
There's plenty to admire in "Blue River." Characters act in surprising ways that prove, once the shock has worn off, to be exactly what that person would in fact have done. Canin has a sharp eye for human contradictions. The boys' mother, a high school guidance counselor increasingly prone to vodka and religion, is palpably disappointed when Lawrence suddenly grants her most fervent wish and reforms himself, however briefly, into a model of propriety. At a school concert, the boys' sister, Darienne, undergoes a change that recalls the transcendent moment of revelation in Henry James' "The Beast in the Jungle."
In other words, this book is a class act. It's as well built and symmetrical as your great-grandmother's drop-leaf table. And in it, Canin takes on what may be a fiction writer's hardest job: He attempts to chart the points at which his characters' choices collide with their destinies.
Yet somehow it's less than thoroughly satisfying. For all its art, "Blue River" is strictly businesslike. It races along as supplely as a greyhound after a mechanical rabbit; every sentence is 100% fat free. The prose isn't blank or uninflected as is the work of all those minimalists we got tired of in the '80s. It has a certain verve, and moments of beauty. Still, every detail is given a specific job to do. Edward's reckless night drives, his only visible quirk, are a tidy metaphor for his torments. Lawrence's crippled life is mirrored by a crippled hand. Five or even three pages in, the reader knows more or less what's going on here and what to expect.
While this quality is often praised (frequently with terms such as "lean" and "muscular"), it doesn't rank high on my own list of virtues. I like to think that readers, at least the kind Canin writes for, have a more generous attention span than that.
I also suspect that our lives are messier and more haphazard than they come off in a narrative as stripped-down as this. Every moment in "Blue River" is significant, every act has a consequence, and it doesn't quite ring true. It's all a little too polished--Canin seems to have spent each telling detail the way a miser spends money. Everything's useful and durable. There's no room in the budget for the frivolous or the bizarre, or for the just plain astonishing. Darienne's transformation is wonderful, but it feels like a device, a moment that exists because the overall structure needed such a moment around Page 205. In "The Beast in the Jungle," James gave his characters room to wander, so that by the time they revealed themselves they were more than carefully wrought bearers of the author's intentions.
Formally, "Blue River" feels like a true accomplishment. But the experience of reading it is something like being taken to an afternoon concert of string quartets by a cultured, sensitive college friend. On one hand, you admire his refinement. You respect the mournful beauty of the music. And on the other hand you can't wait to get away from him and into some sleazy bar with a jukebox full of Motown.
Canin seems too young to be so well-behaved. Although Phillips' "Machine Dreams" wasn't a perfect book, no praise seemed too lavish because Phillips was and is a writer with a vast gift and the courage to push it as far as it'll go. In "Machine Dreams," she seemed to promise unimaginable riches still to come. But Canin, not yet 35, already feels autumnal. This was true of "Emperor" as well as "Blue River." I kept wondering, where's the eccentricity, the lunatic ambition? Where are the images or the sentences that are unlike anything you've every read before?
It would be unfair to belittle Canin's talent, or to gloss over the solid achievement contained in "Blue River." Canin is a rare phenomenon, a writer with integrity who appears to be finding a wide audience. For that reason alone, I wanted to like "Blue River" more than I did.
By the book's end, my overriding sentiment was this: Canin has a gift, and I'd hate to see him slap a lid on it so soon. Too much praise too early can do that, especially to a writer like Canin, whose biggest handicap is probably his own tendency to be polite. If he isn't careful--if he listens too closely to his publicist or his public--he could remain a parlor talent, with conventional good manners and perfect pitch. In his next book, I hope he does more driving with his eyes closed.