BOOK REVIEW / Getting the guys to do the ironies: The palace thief by Ethan Canin Bloomsbury pounds 15.99

ETHAN CANIN has written two previous works of fiction. His first collection of short stories, Emperor of the Air, was on the New York Times bestseller list for two months. His novel Blue River also made a big noise. ('Truly breath-taking stuff' Newsday said.) Now, he has written another collection of stories - presented, a little portentously perhaps, as a 'quartet of novellas'. They all have male protagonists and deal with what Garrison Keillor, in one of his latest outbursts of twee, has termed 'guyness'. Like The Book of Guys, from which that phrase comes, and a lot of other recent male fiction, the stories in The Palace Thief offer sympathetic anatomies of conventional masculine failings.

In 'City of Broken Hearts', the protagonist, Buck, whose wife has left him for another man and whose piously modern son lectures him on the new sexual etiquette, offers a variation on one of the central 'guyness' riffs. 'He could certainly see how women had suffered great difficulty in the world, but he did not understand why this should be of concern to his son. The female gender, it seemed to him, could take care of itself. It could more than take care of itself. In truth, it seemed to him that in the last few years there had been a secret communication among women and that this communication was growing and leaving men behind.'

If Canin does not exactly endorse this foggy take on the state of gender relations, he does ask us to sympathise with the bewilderment it betokens. His stories all point to the impoverished state of male 'communication'. The men fend off meaningful contact with one another with playful biffs and bluster. They seethe with competitive rage and the pain of childhood slights - all the while clapping each other on the back and exchanging baseball stories. Yes, these stories suggest, we men are woefully inadequate and yes, we behave badly, but don't go thinking we enjoy it. The next time you see a man acting like a sap, remember that inside he's probably dying. (All that time men spend bouncing about being good ole boys and bozos, and you mean to say they're not even having fun?)

Some of Canin's protagonists would like to communicate with each other, but none has a clue how to set about it. With bluff, arms-length joviality, the father in 'Batorsag and Szerelem' always addresses his son as 'sailor'. (Significantly, his other son, the only man in the book who achieves intimacy with another man, is gay and has invented an entire private language for talking to his lover.) In 'City of Broken Hearts', Buck seeks the companionship of an old buddy after his wife has left him. But all the buddy wants to do is 'get drunk and talk about Pi Phi girls they had known thirty-four years ago in South Bend'.

Canin's most pathetic examples of the emotionally costive male are the eponymous narrator of 'Accountant' and the schoolteacher protagonist of the title story. For both men, standard male messed-upness is compounded by an exaggerated sense of propriety. Even the solace of phatic guy-talk is denied them. They are timid souls destined to be bullied by coarser male sensibilities. In narratives that owe a great deal - perhaps too much - to Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day, they offer unknowing portraits of their own near-ludicrous tight-arsedness. The climaxes of both stories take place when they attend big male get-togethers and end up committing small but crucial acts of defiance. The accountant steals a legging worn by the baseball player Willie May and, in doing so, foregoes the opportunity of a career-making business deal. The schoolteacher tells a former student, now a powerful and corrupt man, that he is a cheat.

The jacket blurb for The Palace Thief promotes Ethan Canin as a purveyor of 'small' and 'daily' ironies - which is odd, because the ironies here all seem rather chunky, life ironies - the sort that work themselves out over decades and are only recognised by the protagonists in retrospective, twilight epiphanies. To be sure, the events which turn out to have been watersheds are often elaborately minute and in all the stories there is a great deal of the paratactic, deliberately banal detail that characterises much modern American fiction. But the overall tone is elegiac and quietly profound. If true grandeur escapes Canin, it may be because there is too much proficiency in his prose and not enough wild card. His style suggests a skill mastered, rather than a talent at play, and it never quite shakes off a quality of diligent pastiche. Accomplished though The Palace Thief undoubtedly is, one would gladly trade some of its polish for a little more writerly risk.

(Photograph omitted)

Arts and Entertainment
On The Apprentice, “serious” left the room many moons ago and yet still we watch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from David Ayer's 'Fury'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift performs at the 2014 iHeart Radio Music Festival
music review
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Anderson plays Arthur Shelby in Peaky Blinders series two
tvReview: Arthur Shelby Jr seems to be losing his mind as his younger brother lets him run riot in London
Arts and Entertainment
Miranda Hart has called time on her award-winning BBC sitcom, Miranda
tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Boy George performing with Culture Club at Heaven

musicReview: Culture Club performs live for first time in 12 years

Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing
books

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

music
Arts and Entertainment
Neville's Island at Duke of York's theatre
musicReview: The production has been cleverly cast with a quartet of comic performers best known for the work on television
Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol

art
Arts and Entertainment
Lynda Bellingham stars in her last Oxo advert with on-screen husband Michael Redfern

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

    Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

    The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
    Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

    Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

    The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
    DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

    Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

    Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
    The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

    Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

    The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

    The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
    Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

    Paul Scholes column

    I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
    Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

    Handy hacks that make life easier

    New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker