The story of two young men, vastly different and from opposite worlds, who meet at Columbia University. One, Orno, comes from a small town in Missouri, unsophisticated and hopelessly behind. The other, Marshall, is a brilliant New Yorker who lives right on the edge.
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Like Philip Roth and Robert Penn Warren, Ethan Canin won the Houghton Mifflin Fellowship for rising stars whose first books hit big. His luminous 1988 story collection, Emperor of the Air remains a must-read, but his second novel, For Kings and Planets, is nonetheless recognizably part of the Canin constellation. He repeatedly features a straight guy (an accountant or other sober type) transfixed by the spectacle of an out-of-control guy (a delinquent and/or child-prodigy brother or brother figure to the main character). This time, it's Orno Tarcher, a Missouri farm boy thunderstruck by his Columbia University classmate Marshall Emerson, a theatrically bratty, sometimes suicidal Manhattan genius. "I grew up with farmers and insurance salesmen," says Orno. "I grew up with Kennedys and insurance salesmen," says Marshall. "I grew up with pigs everywhere," says Orno. "And we had that in common," Marshall replies. (In keeping with their characters, Orno becomes a sensible dentist and Marshall a cynical, coked-up Hollywood producer.)
Canin sensitively evokes Orno's prosaic world--you'd have to read Jane Smiley's The Age of Grief for better fiction about dentistry. But Orno mostly exists to relate Marshall's appealing, appalling antics: his manic raps about his childhood amid the ruins of Istanbul, his sabotage of his own (and Orno's) love life, his Oedipal strife with his chilly, brilliant parents. "Our family seal is a snake twisted in knots," says Marshall's lovely sister. And, reader, Orno marries her. Page for page, Canin's stories better show off his gift for epiphany, but the novel gives him room to develop character, entangle plots, and make a stab at the heart of the family romance. --Tim AppeloFrom the Publisher:
For Kings and Planets, by Ethan Canin
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 Orno Tarcher comes to Columbia University from a tiny Midwestern town, another freshman, sophisticated New Yorker Marshall Emerson, befriends him. The friendship is unlikely: Orno 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. Orno 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, Orno is always freshly seduced when his mercurial friend lures him from diligent study to debauched gatherings and sexual liaisons, bringing Orno 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, Orno is envious of his friend's undoubtedly spectacular future. Orno 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, Orno 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 Orno with insights appropriate to his strong moral upbringing and slow maturation. Meanwhile, he creates a rich gallery of characters of 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 the engrossing narrative, however, is the dignity and integrity with which Canin writes about fallible human lives.
-- Publishers Weekly (starred, boxed review), Summer 1998
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