BOOK REVIEW / Abba legs it with Willie Mays: 'The Palace Thief' - Ethan Canin: Bloomsbury, 15.99

ETHAN CANIN writes the sort of poised, well- crafted stories that belong to the strain of North American realism practised by post-war writers from Raymond Carver to Alison Lurie and Anne Tyler. Not big on ideas, but full of gentle humanity conveyed in clean, unfettered prose and committed to small incidents that snag the memory and shape and illuminate a life.

In the first and most affecting of the four novellas that make up The Palace Thief, Abba Roth, a suburban accountant, is invited to a baseball 'fantasy camp' by Eugene Peters, an old childhood friend, where businessmen play alongside retired major league stars. Sensing the opportunity to cap his career by winning his friend's lucrative account, he prepares a meticulous proposal. Abba has led an exemplary life; he is a hard-working, card-carrying company man who earns just enough to keep his extravagant wife and three children content. Eugene, meanwhile, has become a flamboyant 'captain of industry', pictured in corporate advertisements wearing a baseball cap and flanked by ex-professional players.

At the camp, Abba plays an inspired game, but the prize for Most Valued Player, a legging worn by Willie Mays ('the greatest player of his era') goes to Eugene. Abba realises that it's a stitch-up; the next day, instead of presenting his proposal, he steals the legging, admitting that despite a life of calculated decision, he has always harboured the desire 'for uproar and disorder'.

These stories hinge on contrasts like this; the powerless seize their moment of symbolic integrity, a flash of understanding throws longstanding relationships into relief. That these transitions rarely seem awkward is due to Canin's impeccable bedside manner (he is training to be a doctor). Self-effacing and humble, he sits his protagonists down and pats their hands comfortingly as they falter towards truth; he's the sort of person to whom you would not hesitate to spill your secrets.

This approach works best with orderly, timid types like Abba, whose stories Canin faithfully transcribes in language that matches their own limitations and gently reveals their blindnesses and naivety. As Abba recalls the moment when his and Eugene Peters' lives ceased to mirror each other, Canin has him say, with the odd, cliched formality of one ill at ease with self-expression: 'I began to pursue a career in accounting. . . Mr Peters had taken a job in an auto-parts dealership.' Later, at camp, he attends a lecture on tax law: 'In case anything of value was said,' he tells us, 'I brought my briefcase with me, although I believe some of the men might have been laughing at the fact. The lecture turned out to be of a basic nature, although the information was reasonably handled and for the most part correct.'

Canin is also good on the generation gap and the synapses of language and attitude that divide the young from the old. In 'City of Broken Hearts', a father struggles to come to terms with his divorce and with the apparent ease with which Brent, his right-on, socially aware, 20-year-old son approaches life. He joins the singles scene, and puzzles at the way middle- aged etiquette seems to demand that small talk give way to confession. 'Often before dinner had even arrived, he found himself expounding about feelings he wasn't even sure he really had.' He shocks Brent (and himself) with crude, bravado phrases picked up in bars and wonders at his son's naturalness with women. Suddenly child and parent have swapped places, the balance of power has subtly shifted.

Although there is a great deal to admire in these stories, at times they feel a little formulaic, as if Canin has followed too slavishly lessons on how to construct a story. He likes to begin at a pivotal point - the phone call from Eugene Peters; Brent's arrival at the airport from college - move into flashback and from there advance the story, via an existential insight, to where it began. Sometimes, as in the title story, where his theme of spirit and powerlessness has a grander design, the seams show.

Mr Hundert (he never reveals his Christian name) teaches ancient history in an exclusive private school, moulding the minds of boys destined to be politicians and presidents. Hundert has never married; teaching is his vocation. This fact is cruelly exploited by the otherwise dullard son of a senator and repeated years later in an improbable scene where Hundert is unwittingly conscripted in his ex-pupil's bid to become a senator himself. The teacher who has devoted his life to machinations of Roman generals is hopelessly ignorant of the swift cut and thrust of those who are born to rule. This irony may be contrived, but The Palace Thief still has moments of real pathos, and Hundert would make a great part for Anthony Hopkins.

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