Under the Big Sky ” EVERYTHING”

The four central characters in Kevin Canty’s new novel, “Everything,” call Montana home, and though they love where and how they live, they all have reasons to want something else – lives other than the ones they’ve fashioned. And so they all make terrible, destructive but perhaps ultimately romantic decisions about love.

Excerpt: ‘Everything’ (August 15, 2010)

“Everything” revolves around a middle- aged man named RL. He owns a shop called the Angler, which offers fishing supplies and guided raft rides on the river that winds through town and partly defines the characters’ lives. RL feels “the presence of his shadow,” Canty writes, “that other life that was the opposite of the one he was leading.” He’s divorced, and slowly realizes he’s in love with a woman whose situation – married, two kids and suffering from cancer – would certainly put off a less stubborn or foolish man.  RL has a 19-year-old daughter, Layla, who’s beautiful and outdoorsy and home from college for the summer. She pines after a boyfriend who’s studying in Russia, and she worries that he’s cheating on her. To combat her own doubts and jealousies, she starts a relationship with Edgar, a married man who works for her father as a guide. Early in the novel, Edgar breaks his arm while rafting with RL. This renders him unable to continue working on the river, though it does afford him a lot of time to draw (with his good hand) portraits of Layla. But besides his wife, he’s got a young daughter at home and a baby on the way, and the guilt of his affair eats at him.

Then there’s June, the widow of RL’s boyhood friend. She and her husband lived more or less happily for decades in the same house, and now that he’s gone, she feels trapped. The home “fit over her like a shell, like a snake’s skin, something she needed to split, to crack, to grow out of.” In trying to rid herself of the house, June takes up with her real estate agent.

Four characters, three misguided romances, all forged from the madness of love, all made believable in Canty’s skilled hands. In alternating sections, “Everything” examines these relationships as they bud, blossom and then fail to progress as the characters might have hoped. There is a lot of booze and heartbreak in the book, yet it is full of optimism and humanity.

In Canty’s earlier work, the shadow of Raymond Carver loomed large, as it did for so many story writers at the time. Canty’s first collection, “A Stranger in This World,” even included a story about a couple’s encounter with a blind man – a tribute, no doubt, to Carver’s “Cathedral.” With “Everything,” though, Canty has found a style all his own, and it casts a hypnotic spell. There are still the short, staccato sentences, but there are also longer passages that soar with a new confidence and lyricism. As RL drives Betsy, the woman he loves, home after her chemotherapy treatment, he is aghast to see the squalor and filth of the house where she lives with her husband and her children:

“Suddenly in the half-light he saw Ann and her mother’s faces next to each other, and he saw the length of her and the fineness of her bones, her long soft girl’s hair, and in the two of them he saw Betsy as she had been at 19 when he had first met her, at 20 when he had slept with her: long, delicate, pretty. Looking back from Ann to her mother, he saw – an optical illusion, it felt like, some kind of trick – the girl’s face and the woman’s at the same time, Betsy at 19, the annihilating work of time, some furious sandstorm blowing through and obliterating everything in its path. The features blunted, then erased. The Sphinx. The sadness that rushed through him was not just feeling sorry for himself, for her, for all of them but a certainty that she should have been with RL all along.”

“Everything” is partly about regret, but as the title suggests, it’s about much more. It’s about the sorrow that accompanies aging (“People don’t get older,” the teenage Layla says. “They just get worse”) and the ways we try, often when it seems too late, to construct new lives, even if they’re still deeply entangled with our old ones.

I always find myself holding my breath as I approach the final pages of novels. If they’ve been good, I’m afraid the writer will let me down – the ending will be too neat or sentimental or vague. I should have known, though, not to worry about what would happen at the end of “Everything.” Canty is a master of wrapping things up. At the end of one of his earliest stories, a young woman shoots a drunk who has been terrorizing her boyfriend and her. After dumping the body in the Atlantic, the woman knows she and her boyfriend will never be able to look at each other the same way again. As they drive home, they run over an empty grocery sack. “The bag,” Canty writes, “is crushed under the wheels, with a loud surprising sound, then left behind them in the road. That’s it, Tina thinks. That’s it exactly.”

It’s not that RL, Layla, Edgar or June do anything so unexpected at the end of “Everything,” but they all become emotionally engaged with one another instead of just with their various romantic interests. There’s a confrontation, a fight and finally, for most of them, laughter about the mess they’ve made of everything: “The laughter feeds on itself unwholesome like the laughter at a funeral or accident but still contagious and after a minute of this, of giggle and calm and then the laughter bursting forth again, Layla herself joins in.” Unlike the endings to much of Canty’s previous work, the last pages are filled with hope. Yet Canty isn’t ignorant of the lives the characters still have to live, of the mistakes they still have to make. When I arrived at the end of “Everything,” I, too, thought: That’s it. That’s it exactly.

Vendela Vida is a founding editor of The Believer. Her third novel, “The Lovers,” has just been published.

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