Sadness suffuses Ethan Canin's "Carry Me Across the Water." But it's not the sort of sadness that makes you cry.
It's the sort of sadness that makes you quiet. The sort of sadness that might spring from, say, staring at a body of still, still water and seeing scenes from a long life flicker across its glinty skin. Though the life may not be yours, its lessons may.
Since his debut story collection, "Emperor of the Air," was published when Canin was 27, he has been known as a young writer with a startling ability to write like an old writer (a perspective sharpened, presumably, after years treating patients as a doctor). In "Carry Me Across the Water," Canin's fifth book, he again presents an elderly protagonist: August Kleinman, an entrepreneur of advancing years. Born in Germany to a wealthy man and a wise woman, both Jewish, Kleinman escapes with his mother as the Nazis rise to power, makes his way to Brooklyn, N.Y., and begins his new American life.
His story, told in flashes through the years, is not unusual: Here's Kleinman learning to play football, surprising himself with his own aggression. Here he is fighting for his country overseas. Here he is falling in love with a woman from the same neighborhood but a vastly different culture (an Italian Catholic). His is the prototypical immigrant story of the boy who leaves behind the old-country ways, all the while preserving some of its values. He leaves home with his bride, starts a business (a brewery), works hard, raises a family, gets rich. Then he loses his beloved wife, retires, grows distant from his children, finds his own health growing increasingly undependable and discovers that money is a poor companion for an old man.
Although the outlines of the story may not sound so fresh, the telling of it is. Canin's prose is direct and evocative, even managing to render the book's vaguely hokey main plot device -- Kleinman has a wartime secret; now, in old age, he has a chance to right a few of his life's wrongs -- rather captivating as it plays itself out.
Kleinman's life credo -- "Take the advice of no one" -- bestowed upon him by his mother, has rendered him a self-reliant survivor (in business, in war, in love) but, alas, somewhat isolated. Fiercely in control of his own actions, Kleinman is nevertheless consistently mystified by his emotions. And his distance from his own feelings -- for he, too, seems to be watching his life unfold as if it were happening to someone else -- allows us to gauge their effects, rippling beneath the surface.
We watch, for instance, as he and his youngest son, Jimmy, stumble through their awkward father-son conversations, two men who have never been able to fully understand each other. Each one is hopeful, dutiful, yet neither can quite move past the fundamental difference in approach that has separated them all along. The exacting father and the bashful son are trapped in their permanent loop of misapprehension in a way that is so real, so painful, we'd like nothing more than to plunk a hand in and bring these two men together.
But, of course, we can no more do that than they can, and so, like them, we just stand witness, helpless, as the pattern plays itself out. And like them, we hold out hope that something -- the future, the next generation -- will bridge the gap and carry them to each other, and to a clearer understanding of themselves.