This complex portrait of a troubled math genius and the effect his gift has on those close to him combines a strong narrative and bumper crop of themes.
For his seventh work of fiction, Canin (America America, 2008, etc.) first presents some 200 third-person pages focused on Milo Andret, an only child whose aloof parents give him a freedom he exercises in the Michigan woods. There, he discovers unusual talents as a whittler who carves a wooden chain more than 25 feet long from a beech stump. A late-blooming math whiz, at Berkeley grad school in the 1970s, he specializes in topology, whose practitioners “built undrawable figures in their imaginations, then twisted and folded them.” He also discovers LSD, sex, and academic competition, laying the groundwork for long-term addictions. He gains fame in math and a job at Princeton, but heavy drinking, sex, and the drive for another milestone undo him. Canin then switches to the voice of Milo’s son, Hans, who reveals he has been the quasi-omniscient narrator of the first section, based on stories told to him by his ailing father. It’s an awkward, risky shift that pulls the story away from its focus on a deeply intriguing character (though perhaps a useful lesson in unreliable narrators for the author’s classes at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop). Hans gives his boyhood observations of Milo’s “Olympian drinking” and is surprised to realize how “normal” his own childhood seemed. Yet he also struggles with addiction, from an Ecstasy precursor to cocaine as well as the high of a quant’s wins on Wall Street, which is where Hans uses his own considerable math skills. Ultimately a nice guy, he pales beside the fiercely irascible, hurtful patriarch.
Book clubs may dig into the many interesting veins here—family, ambition, addiction, lust—but Mean Dad was the motherlode, and it’s not clear that Canin’s easing of the darkness makes for a better novel.