Brief Encounter meets Leaving Las Vegas in the Montana author’s acrid third novel, following Into the Great Wide Open (1996), Nine Below Zero (1999), and two top story collections.
Fiftyish poet and teacher Richard Winslow, our eponymous protagonist, is adipose, unproductive, alcoholic and locked in a mutually disappointing marriage with painter June Leaf, who senses the emptiness that’s consuming him—and takes off after he accepts a one-year residency at a small Montana liberal arts college. There are echoes of Roth’s Letting Go and Malamud’s A New Life in Canty’s crisp renderings of the poetry classes Winslow holds, where he grapples with the intricacies of Rilke, rudely defuses his students’ expectations and objections, and forms a curious combative relationship with 20-year-old Erika Jones, a tough-talking, body-pierced California girl who provokes and challenges him while paradoxically insinuating herself into his daily routines. Canty has a real flair for the bitter self-deprecating humor these unlikely companions share and spar with, and for ferociously pertinent character-centered imagery (“his brain was soft and spongy and clumped in his head like wet laundry”). But the story is all too familiar: the flashbacks to Winslow’s undistinguished army service and failed first marriage; the nonsexual friendship with a lonely colleague who invites him to dinner and confides details of her underachievement and lack of fulfillment; and the Sylvia Plath–like figure of Erika, a depressive Fury who embodies all too persuasively Winslow’s conviction that “all that he knew and all that he loved was to be taken from him, and soon.” Canty’s manner of working out this declared destiny avoids the clichés otherwise burdening the narrative, but isn’t enough to save the novel.
This solidly professional, forthright writer has produced a lot of good work. But this one was a mistake, his weakest.