Ethan Canin on cave diving, character development and his latest novel, Carry Me Across the Water

Wednesday, Aug 1 2001

Near the end of Ethan Canin‘s 1998 novel, For Kings and Planets, the stolid Midwestern Orno Tarcher reflects, “He had always expected to decide his fate the way his father had decided his; to decide his character, really -- upright decisions in an upright life. But instead he had merely discovered it, merely stumbled upon the pieces and bits, laid murkily before him.”

August Kleinman, the 78-year-old protagonist of Canin’s taut and moving new novel, Carry Me Across the Water, also stumbles upon his character piecemeal -- he discovers his own aggression, courage and brute strength in a series of encounters with other men. But Kleinman‘s character also includes a whopping portion of self-determination. Obeying his mother’s edict -- accept the advice of no one -- Kleinman has renounced his own Jewishness, married an Italian Catholic and made millions in a decidedly non-Jewish business: a brewery. Now widowed, retired, distanced from his children and facing his own death, Kleinman is navigating grief, reflecting on his life and trying to connect with his most difficult son. Alone in his unstructured days, Kleinman stumbles across still more pieces of himself: a generosity, an increasing tenderness, a small fund of regret. He also has some unfinished business -- a letter he intercepted during World War II needs to be delivered to its rightful recipient. Canin weaves the various strands of Kleinman‘s life into a hypnotic, intricately structured, elegiac novel. He spoke to the Weekly via e-mail from his home in Iowa City, where he teaches at the Iowa Writers Workshop.

L.A. WEEKLY: What was the kernel for this new book?

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ETHAN CANIN: It’s difficult to remember, of course, but I think the first force was a memory from high school of going down into an Indian cave somewhere in California. We descended into a tiny hole, so narrow that I had to choose either to have my hands in front of me -- which widened my shoulders and made passage even more difficult but calmed my fears a bit -- or at my sides, which made my profile sleeker but did nothing to quell the sense of terror at wriggling straight down. It was my first experience with real claustrophobia (since matched by an MRI of my head a few years ago) and got me thinking about what it might have been like to do a similar descent but with an enemy soldier at the other end. This was the genesis of Kleinman‘s descent into the cave on Aguni Jima. As I began writing the book, it turned into a meditation on the handful of incidents of violence in a man’s life: the football tackle, the cave, CPR on his wife, dropping his child, knocking the goon into the water. This was something of an organizing principle for me as I wrote.

Your main character is a 78-year-old Jewish immigrant approaching the end of his life. How did you come to write about such a person?

Kleinman came in from a group of scenes: the old guy refusing to put up his airplane-seat back; the tycoon working as a bagger; the capitalist buying art because, strangely, almost across generations, it moved him. The voice is an amalgam of the voices of my childhood, old Jewish men who knew the rules of the world -- rag salesmen reincarnated in postwar America -- but men who still stopped on the street to listen to a violin sonata coming from an open window: the sacred and profane of New World Jewry. Recently, my wife asked me what was in my head in putting the Japanese soldier‘s cave letter up on Kleinman’s wall, and I told her that Kleinman has a gentle soul hidden in fear behind the fierce one. He‘s betrayed another gentle, aesthetic soul -- the Japanese solder’s -- who had hoped that the GI to discover him would be like-minded. Well, he was; but fear -- and thus fierceness -- triumphed. And as Kleinman grows older, he grows less afraid -- there‘s less to lose: Thus, near death, the gentleness can re-emerge from behind the fierceness.

The title is haunting and rather mysterious: Where is it from?

My feeling about titles is that they should add to the mystery, deepen it, if you will, rather than answer anything. If a book or a story is solved by its title, it’s too simple a work. That said, the title came to me while I was playing a spiritual on the piano for my kids -- I think it‘s called “Shenandoah.” It’s a heartbreaking song, and my guess is that it‘s a slave’s song about deliverance. Kleinman doesn‘t need a deliverance, exactly, but perhaps he needs something to ease his passage to the other side.

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