on Where The Money Went, short stories by Kevin Canty (Nan A. Talese / Doubleday)

James Wood says that short story writers are addicted to Chekhov’s “‘negative endings’: the way his stories expire into ellipses, or seem to end in the middle of a thought ... This is so invisibly part of the grammar of contemporary short fiction that we no longer notice how peculiarly abrupt, how monotonously fragmentary much of what we read has become. Consistent with this abruptness is the contemporary idea that the short story should present itself as a victim of its own confusion, a poised bewilderment, in which nothing can really be sorted out; the necessary vehicle for this bewilderment is the first-person narrator, who must get along amid modern confusions without the help of an all-knowing, third-person authorial patron.”

But we want to experience the bewilderment of characters, and we’ve developed a taste for fragmentation. Monotony of tone, static shards, the arrogance of dictating in advance what we should find sufficient – these are some of the annoyances. Too often one senses a missing, inimitable capability in the writer, an inability to express what Borges described as the quality of art in Labyrinths:

“Music, states of happiness, mythology, faces belaboured by time, certain twilights and certain places try to tell us something, or have said something we should have missed, or are about to say something. This imminence of a revelation which does not occur is, perhaps, the aesthetic phenomenon.”

Canty2.jpgThe slant approach of a non-occurring revelation is the secret sauce in Kevin Canty’s Where the Money Went. This unverging presence is expressed through the most delicate manipulations of imagery and action, despite the rough-edged immediacy of his speakers’ narratives. The tough situations depicted, “ordinary” only in the sense that Canty makes them feel familiar, are implicitly respected by the subtle measures taken to perfect the forms of the prose.

Canty3.jpgA Canty story can operate like the best poetry – where the materials of plot, character, location and so forth combine to form a pleasing totality but are not exactly what the story is “about.” In the best stories (a six-way tie for first, nine tales in all), the pressure to tell pushes the speaker towards clarity, as if the shape of experience is a kind of spectral bait and by speaking we chase it. Canty’s ear is perfect, the writing compressed to spring ahead. The indistinct shape of near-awareness inhabits his endings. For the reader, apprehension registers more like a vibration than a message.

In “No Place in This World For You,” the unnamed narrator is a real estate agent with a harried working wife named Carol-Ann and a four-year son named Walter who bites when he’s angry. Suburban married life frames the story. The narrator has been showing houses to a child-less couple, Tom and Sally Drake. They look and look but don’t buy. Carol-Ann goes for long jogs while her husband, who appreciates her ass in spandex, settles back to watch baseball with Walter.

“Those Southern girls. I see them at the ballpark with their boyfriends, big blonde hair, smooth legs in shorts and Atlanta Braves jerseys. They kiss their boyfriends, cheer for the strike-outs. Smoltz is really picking up his game in the late going. Those girls, they defer. Sometimes I think that’s half the reason I watch these games, just to see the manners of the crowd, the little differences, so familiar to me. These girls don’t walk into a restaurant first and pick out the table. They don’t interrupt. It’s just a different game, is all, and one I miss.”

Canty4.jpgObserving little differences, affording some relief from larger issues, is his recourse. This is when the world defers to him. But then, the little differences lead back to the world. (In the middle of the comment above, he defers to Smoltz.) “No Place in This World For You,” referring to Walter, has a bite of its own. The narrator’s sadness and empathy are genuine and when Canty allows his narrator to make a big statement, it has an earned sound: “There’s something wrong with every house, with every life and every marriage. It’s just a matter of balance. But Tom wants Sally to pick the house, to fall in love, to finally say that this is the one.” And Sally wants Tom to be the decider. A matter of balance. In the end, when the narrator shows one final house to Sally, Canty gives us the chilly shock of thinking that perhaps there is a place, or at least a reason, for the one who bites, even though “the world hates a biter, and my love cannot protect you.” The biter is angry, but anger is an adult pastime.

The collection’s lobby piece, “Where the Money Went,” gives only a taste of what follows – so if you browse before you buy, try the first page or two of “The Birthday Girl,” another of Canty’s gems.

[Published July 14, 2009, 191 pages, $25.00 hardcover]

Canty1.jpg(Kevin Canty has also produced an earlier short story collection and four novels, including Winslow in Love [2005], featuring a jaded teaching-poet, and named by
Colum McCann in the Guardian (UK)
as one of the ten best novels about poets.)

review of Canty

Very interesting review, thanks.