Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

College Friends Confront Life

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

College Friends Confront Life

Article excerpt

For Kings and Planets

By Ethan Canin

Random House

335 pp., $24.95

Last month when lists of great books made headlines, "The Great Gatsby" scored high with the old fogies from Random House and the hipsters at Radcliffe College. Though it enjoyed only modest sales when published in 1925, nowadays everybody loves Fitzgerald's brief novel about a glamorous gangster and his doomed quest for status and love.

I kept thinking about that masterpiece as I read Ethan Canin's new novel, "For Kings and Planets." This is another story about an introspective Midwesterner who goes to New York and gets caught up with a dazzling, deceptive friend. Like Fitzgerald, Canin has developed a luxurious style that risks being maudlin, and he romanticizes narcissistic young men so beautifully that you almost forget how pompous they are.

The novel opens in 1974 on the day Orno Tarcher arrives with his parents at Columbia University. He wanders around New York City in awe of its grandeur. Desperately aware that he's left the simplicity and morality of his home in Cook's Grange, Mo., he's delighted when another student introduces himself and gives him access to a world of wealth, brilliance, and sophistication.

Marshall inspires awe in everyone who knows him (including, unfortunately, the author). Forced to study throughout his childhood by a brilliant, but loveless, father, Marshall can recall everything he's ever read, and he's read just about everything ever written. He never studies for tests, but aces every one.

He's ironic and brooding, alternately ingratiating and critical. In a cloud of drugs and alcohol, he reigns over a group of cafe intellectuals in black pants and T-shirts who gather each night to trade pseudoprofundities. At 20, "Marshall had already lived a life of spectacular worldliness," and for Orno, who considers himself a hopeless hayseed, he offers escape from a world of dull responsibilities and routines.

For reasons Orno can never understand, Marshall is equally drawn to him. …

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