In his latest novel, Ethan Canin tells the story of a potentially Faustian bargain -- a story in which the hero, from first chapter to last, is tempted to mortgage his soul. Canin recognizes that selling out to the devil is old hat as themes go and that the truly interesting version of this story focuses on the pitting of integrity against charisma. For Orno Tarcher -- a self-described "hayseed" from Cook's Grange, Mo., who comes east to attend Columbia University -- the glamour and intellectual diversions of New York City are "a seduction." At the heart of that seduction is Marshall Emerson, a fellow freshman with an academic family, a liar's charm and a photographic memory -- he dazzles friends by reciting whole pages of their textbooks verbatim.
Orno worships Emerson's sophistication: "The world of influence seemed astoundingly close and even more astoundingly pedestrian, tossed off by Marshall with a nonchalance that Orno soon found himself cultivating." Thralldom is among Canin's central subjects. In "Emperor of the Air," his first short story collection, men and boys, mesmerized by larger-than-life individuals, must come to grips with their attraction to a wildness they don't seem to share. Canin is intrigued by the suspect nature of the worshiper and by the worshipee's uncanny ability to understand and exploit admiration. In his story "American Beauty," an erratic and sometimes sadistic man tells his adoring 16-year-old brother, "You're a bastard, too ... You just don't know it yet."
Orno is no bastard, and therein lies one of the novel's strengths. To Canin's credit, the love affairs, drinking and one-upmanship of Marshall's set are not the primary charms of the story. Equal time and affection are lavished on describing Orno's academic struggles. A midterm in dental school, where Orno winds up after a less-than-brilliant undergraduate career, is unaccountably riveting. Even teeth -- which are numbered, "not named for kings or planets" -- have their own romance. In half a line, Canin perfectly captures how ambivalent his hero is about overreaching; Orno, atop the Empire State Building, finds that "the overpowering views [fill] him with fear not of falling but of flying upward."
"For Kings and Planets" is clearly intended as a paean to the beauty of leading an ordinary life. Unfortunately, Orno's sturdiness is so overdrawn that it sometimes feels like a put-on (which, alas, it isn't). Arriving in New York with "hopes of deeds and glory," he remembered thinking, "I am no longer among my own." Such B-movie lines undercut the novel's force and complexity. Canin pretends that the fate of Orno's soul is up for grabs, when no one -- not even the world's biggest hayseed -- could mistake which way the wind is blowing. Apparently, the moral of "For Kings and Planets" is not that nice guys finish first or last, but that they speak in clichis and graduate at the middle of their dental school class.