Mark Harris
March 04, 1994 AT 05:00 AM EST

The Palace Thief

Current Status
In Season
Ethan Canin
Short Stories, Fiction

We gave it a B+

The one-word billing on the jacket of Ethan Canin’s The Palace Thief (Random House, $21) is ”stories,” and perhaps the most impressive of this collection’s / many feats is that the label is accurate. Canin, the doctor/novelist/essayist/ irritant-to-the-less-versatile who first came to prominence with Emperor of the Air (1988) practices an art virtually abandoned by many of his fellow creators of serious short fiction: He tells stories, tensely and dramatically plotted, psychologically acute, crafted with true narrative vigor. Begin ”Accountant,” about a middle-aged man who irreparably defiles his sense of honor, or the title story, which depicts a student and teacher locked in a struggle at a boarding school where the internal politics are as perilous as a medieval court, and the strength and insistence of Canin’s writing pulls you in. Read just a page or two of ”City of Broken Hearts,” in which a divorce’s grown son helps him regain a foothold in the single world, or the magnificent ”Batorsag and Szerelem,” which packs a great novel’s worth of insight about the workings of a family into 50 pages, and you will not stop. You want to know-you must know-how they end. How Canin gets you there is more open to complaint. Three of The Palace Thief’s four stories are first-person confessions, and the author, a fierce social satirist disguised as a purveyor of gently compassionate fiction, has an unappealing tendency to score points off his tortured narrators, using their naivete or ineptitude to add muscle to his prose. Too often, the subjects of his stories are revealed to be blinkered fools, kidding themselves into oblivion and miserably measuring out the remains of their days. That accountant, sitting next to Willie Mays at a baseball fantasy camp, slides from touching to mockable when he says, ”How can I describe what it was like to eat a Belgian waffle with such a man sitting nearby?” It’s a laugh line, but the laugh is too easy given the cool, almost brutal way Canin eventually contrives a fate exquisitely tailored to the man’s failings and delusions. The point is worth arguing only because these stories are good enough to inspire argument; they’re worth reading and rereading, chewing over and discussing. But they’d be even better if the smartest person on the page weren’t always the author. B+

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