May 6, 2001
Modern Maturity
As Ethan Canin's 78-year-old protagonist senses death approaching, memories erupt.

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  • First Chapter: 'Carry Me Across the Water'

    By Ethan Canin.
    206 pp. New York:
    Random House. $23.95.

    Forget the madeleines. When it comes to jump-starting the intricate machinery of recollection, there's nothing more effective than the scent of approaching death. No one knows this better than August Kleinman, the 78-year-old former brewery owner whose remembrance of things past is the subject of Ethan Canin's third novel. Sensing the inevitable end to his ''sweet and salty life,'' Kleinman finds himself increasingly susceptible to sudden eruptions of memory, each of his present gestures setting off echoes from the past. Peering into a grandson's crib, reading a bedtime story to an invalid wife, glimpsing the erotic curve of a daughter-in-law's hip -- all become encores of earlier moments, manifestations of the ''cycles of devotion, tragedy, idiosyncrasy and outrage'' that make up his (or any) life. ''The universe indeed repeated itself,'' Kleinman thinks at one point, and it's this complex, almost musical interplay of reminiscence and current experience that ''Carry Me Across the Water'' captures so well.

    It helps that the life in question has been an eventful one, vigorously lived. Kleinman regards his history as falling into four broad chapters -- the Flight, the Battle, the Riches and the Decline'' -- and Canin recounts episodes from each, jumping back and forth as he develops several narrative lines at once. The effect is cinematic, occasionally disorienting, yet also strangely elegiac. The crosscutting technique brings a sense of simultaneity to the piecemeal components of Kleinman's life, mimicking the erratic but emotionally coherent operations of memory itself.

    Keith Meyers/The New York Times
    Ethan Canin
    Like most good protagonists, Kleinman is a character rich in suggestive contradictions -- an anticapitalist capitalist, a fierce nonconformist who can make friends with a supermarket cashier but not with his own son, a successful businessman who feels cheated by life despite his $12 million bank account. Born to wealthy Jewish parents in Hamburg between the world wars, he is spirited away by his mother one night in 1933 (''the Flight''), forsaking an imperious father who refuses to recognize the Nazis as a threat. Mother and son settle in Wavecrest, a Jewish enclave in Queens, in much reduced circumstances. Here Kleinman assimilates his mother's oft-repeated precept, ''Take the advice of no one'' -- a lesson in arrogance that serves him well later in life when, against all sensible objections, he starts a beer business in Pittsburgh. Eventually, it becomes the 11th-largest brewery in the country (hence ''the Riches'') and makes Kleinman a very prosperous man.

    But the most formative chapter of Kleinman's life comes earlier -- the Battle,'' his experience as a soldier during World War II. His tour of duty in the Pacific proves harrowing, and serves as the occasion for some of Canin's most gruesome yet understated prose: ''They were warned about booby traps and mines, warned again never to take off their helmets. The jungle was quiet, but as though on cue that afternoon a man using his helmet to scoop stream water took a bullet in the back of the head. The rest of the squad emptied their rifles into the treetops, and a moment later, in the distance a Jap thudded unseen to the ground.''

    "Here on Aguni, I have constructed a passable rendition of the world. The island, and my life where I have hidden myself, I will describe to you in another letter. Perhaps it is different from how you imagine: after dark, I venture into the open for food and water, wary at every step. The soldiers are still about, even at night, but at least the snakes, which can drop upon a man from the tree limbs, are in their torpor then. And I am able, miraculously, and thanks to the efforts of carrying such items at great pains into the jungle, to read the poems of Basho and to study the prints of Gaho and Hogai, as well as to continue my own development in oils, a few of which I have carried here with me as well (thinned with kerosene, which is in adequate supply). This indeed is wondrous for me: not just to be able to work -- and there are no distractions at all, here, my divine Umi -- but to spend my days with these three great teachers of our heritage. Perhaps I will one day be able to tell you what I have learned of the eye and the romance it carries on, quietly and in a most halting manner, with the veiled beauty of the world."

    -- an excerpt from 'Carry Me Across the Water '

    It's on an island near Okinawa -- in a remote cave at the edge of the jungle, where he has a life-changing encounter with a lone Japanese soldier -- that Kleinman first learns genuine fear. But at the same time he discovers the trick of transforming that fear into anger and boldness, the qualities that will become his most salient personality traits. The ordeal also galvanizes his feelings toward Ginger Pella, the Italian Catholic sweetheart who, on his return to Queens, quickly becomes his wife: ''The heat of the ardor he felt at that moment was specifically proportional, he understood, to the terror he had known -- to the actual moments of crawling through the lair of the enemy, as though the depth of that horror and hatred now translated into a deeper room inside himself -- and into that room, as he watched Ginger push aside the pillows on the settee and arrange herself, entered a profound and unbreakable tenderness.''

    Kleinman's ultimate loss of Ginger to an unnamed disease (probably Alzheimer's) is the trigger for the chapter in his life he calls ''the Decline.'' The scenes of her advancing illness, in which he must stand by helplessly as she retreats into a protective cocoon of silence and oblivion, are heartbreaking. But they also point up what is possibly the only weak element in this otherwise sturdily built novel -- namely, the portrayal of Ginger as the person she was before her decline. Since most of Kleinman's interactions with a healthy, fully present Ginger are reported in summary, with little direct dialogue, she remains a hazy figure. And while Kleinman's sense of devastation at her loss is palpable, the sense of exactly what he has lost is not.

    Ginger's underdeveloped character is perhaps a casualty of the book's unusual method of narration, a detail that got lost amid the busy mechanics of montage. But the most obvious risk of Canin's technique -- the potential lack of narrative tension -- is one he sidesteps, elegantly and effectively, by withholding certain important information until the very end of the novel. Specifically, we don't learn what happened inside the island cave until the book's final pages. And when we do, that revelation has the effect of enriching what we've already learned about Kleinman, helping us understand his growing fixation with missed opportunities and shedding light on his uneasy relationship with his son Jimmy. It also brings forward a theme -- the need of sons to assert both their kinship to and their differences from their fathers -- that has run through Canin's work from the beginning.

    ''Carry Me Across the Water'' is a short book, and it remains, despite its narrative sweep of time and geography, something of a chamber piece. But like the Bach cello suites that Kleinman plays on his stereo at night, it's a chamber piece that evokes intense and somber emotions. If Kleinman's musings flirt with sentimentality on occasion (he's brought to tears a little too often for a rugged old goat), these lapses are forgivable, the natural spillover of a heart just discovering regret. For here is a man whose toughness has been the source of both his early success and his later isolation. ''His life had shown him the fruit and dirt of the world,'' Canin writes. Kleinman's great sorrow is his realization, so late in life, that too often he has let the fruit fall from his grasp.

    Gary Krist is the author of four books, including, most recently, the novel ''Chaos Theory.''

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