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)