Oregonian Canty proves once again that short fiction (A Stranger in This World, 1994, etc.) best showcases his eloquence of events, a quality more inimitable than beautiful word-whirling.
In novels such as Nine Below Zero (1999), Canty’s dancing sentence fragments tend to cramp up, as if the nature of a long work put too great a crunch on his skill. His stories relax, trim though they are, and without fail hook you firmly time and again. The characters are usually bottoming out, bashed by hard luck but not yet human trash. Well, mostly not trash, but even the trash is given the gift of irony that helps an utterly crushed man rise up smiling, as in the longest piece here, “Little Palaces,” about a wheelchair-bound man living with his dead wife’s twin sister. He can’t give up the van, his little palace, that he had restored after running off the road and killing his wife in it. In the perfect title story, first seen in The New Yorker, “the bride invited only people she had slept with.” Among the jilted are her lesbian lover and a male lover, who now go off boozing together. All the tales stand tall and invite rereading, but the standout is “Carolina Beach.” Its protagonist is a lawyer romancing the bald mother of two. Survivor of a double mastectomy, she now has perhaps six months to live and has built a hard shell against self-pity that he must break through to get her into bed. On a chilly beach walk, he holds her hand: “small and cold and full of bones.”
Stunning strength throughout. The literary world boasts silver-tongued Irishmen and moody regionalists aplenty, but Canty is in a class of his own.