July 2009

Laura Castellano

fiction

Where the Money Went by Kevin Canty

Kevin Canty offers a dismal perspective on love, marriage, and relationships in his new collection of stories Where the Money Went. Hope is almost non-existent; there seems only to be prolonged agony: "Are we happy? Do we even like each other?" Infidelity is rampant. Only naiveté is precious. Expectations are squashed in each of Canty's finely crafted stories.

His title story sets the general tone. In just a couple of pages a marriage is dissected, torn down by a resentful husband and defined by the family's indulgent possessions (skis, snorkeling equipment, private schools, a pool). But, as is common in Canty's stories, the unpleasant honesty gives way to a few gleaming images (like the chubby son "drifting," in that expensive pool).

This moment of clarity, the moment when reality kicks in, is a common theme in the collection, and Canty usually delivers that theme with a vivid image, whether the main character is on the search for a dog in a wildfire or waiting for a submerged mermaid to materialize.

"The minute the mermaids come out, you come get me," says the narrator's son in "The Birthday Girl." Women in mermaid costumes are said to swim underwater behind the bar he frequents, but when he reaches the bar there is only a "hefty" couple with legs "like manatees," a disappointment to say the least. But when a mermaid finally materializes it is a young woman he recognizes -- real and flawed.

The sense that reality is not what you imagine settles like dust. One of the more uplifting moments in the collection is in "They Were Expendable." The narrator offers a sort of love letter confession to his dead wife about moving on: "This is what I came to tell you, love: that life loves life. You were there but Eleanor was there beside you. She still is, you still are, the three of us in a tangle." It's a complex story about grief and loneliness, and Canty seems to sympathize with both women in the story. He makes it clear that Eleanor's version would be told much differently, having to share this man with a dead woman.

Promotional copy says the stories present "love from a man's point of view," but Canty manages to write women well, who are just as bitter (though previously enlightened). In "No Place in this World for You," the wife seems to have already checked out when the story begins, taking a long run every time she feels frustrated with her husband or son. Canty continually hints they are more in tune than their male counterparts realize. In "The Borreal Forest," a scientist is about to leave for an expedition to search for a lynx. Before he leaves for the mountains, he tells his wife that a couple they are friends with are separating. The woman in that couple, he later reveals to us, is his mistress. Although he thinks his wife is unaware of his affair, when he tells her about the separation she is "…startled, I could feel it -- like the news came physically to her."

The scientist slowly reveals the details of his affair when he gets lost in the snow, but not before he offers this straightforward deduction: "A marriage is alive for as long as it's alive, and then it's gone. What's left is no more than a bitter smell, like something burning."

This type of brutal honesty sometimes works against the characters in Canty's stories, but it's even harder to invest yourself when they're making excuses for their behavior. In "Sleeping Beauty," Andrew, a bachelor, throws a dinner party for his incestuous group of coupled friends. He complains about his lonely life and condemns his friends: "All the fucking marrieds, he thinks, all the stupid secrets, all the carelessness." Still, he wants what they have and is therefore less likeable than they are. Although the story doesn't quite gain the momentum that the others do, it is masterfully placed within the collection -- just when we think it might be better to be unattached, Canty quickly corrects us.

Despite the hedonism, despite the "this was not that" attitude in the collection, the characters are mostly honest with themselves. And the semi-successful relationships may be unconventional, but they're intense nonetheless. Who knew misery could be so refreshing?

 

Where the Money Went by Kevin Canty
Nan A. Talese Press
ISBN: 0385525850
208 Pages

 

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