A richly detailed, intriguingly fragmented chronicle of the personal history and turbulent inner life of a prosperous German-American businessman.
The story begins teasingly, with the text of a letter from a Japanese soldier written but never sent to his wife during WWII—a letter that, we soon learn, is in the possession of 78-year-old August Kleinman, more than a half-century after August had fought on Okinawa before returning home to make his fortune as a brewery owner. We learn all this and more as Canin (Blue River, 1999, etc.) explores various times in August’s past (escaping from Hitler’s Germany with his mother, who remarried in America; fending off gangsters who attempt to muscle in on his business; meeting LBJ at the White House and frankly criticizing the bombing of North Viet Nam; watching helplessly as his beloved wife Ginger sickens and dies) and his present (when he combats boredom by working as a supermarket bagger and befriending a young unmarried mother; bonding awkwardly with his younger son’s family). Ticking away in the background is that episode on Okinawa that prompts Kleinman’s journey in old age to Japan, to right an old wrong (whose full details are revealed only in the emotional closing pages) and to give himself peace. Too much of the story’s (impressive) wealth of personal-historical information seems summarized rather than dramatized, and there are odd little outcroppings of verbal imprecision not explained by Kleinman’s gradual mastery of English. Nevertheless, Canin’s protagonist is a fascinating character (not unlike Bellow’s Artur Sammler), and the full range of his emotions is movingly explored—from stoical remoteness through a passionate yearning to remain connected to things and people he fears he’s leaving behind, while reliving “ . . . the events of his life, which he now thought of broadly as the Flight, the Battle, the Riches, and the Decline.”
Imperfect but interesting fiction that might also be compared to Steven Millhauser’s Pulitzer–winner, Martin Dressler. It signals a new—and very promising—stage in Canin’s career.