Good morning- Here I review the short fiction of Kevin Canty having just finished the collection A Stranger in this World from 1994. As a public service I’m going to link everything that I can find publicly available. No great feat- they’re all from the same place.
I’ve been reading Canty’s short stories whenever they popped up in The NewYorker since the beginning of 2013. I made no active pursuit but I kept the name until I ordered the collection Honeymoon in March 2016, and when I stumbled across A Strange in this World a month ago in Red Hook. The stories always stuck with me and I would read them out loud to my wife although there was really nothing romantic in them, not in the way she would have liked I think. As I was…
Kevin Canty certainly owes a debt to realist writers like Raymond Carver and John Cheever. Middle class (or lesser) suburbanites living in an age of abundance where the dangers are of our own creation, our confused relationships with other human beings, the ambiguous motives which bring people together, or brings one to the brink. That moment when life is about to take a turn for the worst. It isn’t that any of Canty’s characters repulse the reader. They seem highly aware of decoding their actions and make erstwhile attempts to return to the points which are easy to define and good. In “Pretty Judy” the protagonist Paul starts visiting a disabled girl and has sex with her while her parents are away although he feels wretched about doing so. Later, although Judy wishes for Paul to come inside and do it again, he insists on taking her to the zoo, as if doing this innocent thing could erase all of the bad things.
In all of the stories of A Stranger in this World there is are the eyes of god via the strangers. The public, whose observation of the morally questionable acts in this collection anchors them in the fraught territory of deviant behavior, solidifying the point at which one has broken the rules. The parent who smacks their child and has to walk by the strangers’ eyes staring at him/her, Paul who attempts to take a panicked Judy back to shore as she screams for her mother with people watching in silence, the lifeguard who’s failed attempt to seduce an older married woman invests him with paranoia about how much the people around him know. The unnamed public is the third and fourth character to these stories and emphasizes the importance of the trajectory of the protagonist. Now this is happening, and now this is who I become.
And certainly here many of the consequences are legal in nature. Killing, theft, victimizing the disabled. What goes unspoken, and the true gift of Canty’s fiction, is how the reader must assume those characters will internalize those feelings later. Am I really the kind of person who does x? And what about all of those unrealized possibilities, the ones that I wanted to do and did not? In a much later piece a narrator wonders: “It’s strange the way those plans we made are still floating out there, without us. What if I had agreed to the corgi? What would have happened after that?” (From “Story, With Bird”)
Not that I would know this feeling well. But in movies or in fiction let’s say a character is holding a gun and just about to pull the trigger. What makes this such a compelling set piece in so many pieces of media? It’s the thought that this tiny increment of action, a few more ounces of pressure, will irrevocably change anything. Regardless of the intention, the emotions that ran away with a person, the danger and whatever outside influences, and the legal and psychological history that put the person there with their finger on the trigger. Canty’s characters develop their arrival at these moments and the point in which their life change tracks beyond recovery.
Here’s what I was able to find online. I didn’t actually know Kevin Canty was a novelist until I started looking into it today.
“God’s Work” -2016
“Story, With Bird“- 2014
“Mayfly“- 2013. This is also not a romantic idea but I used to call a Turkish girlfriend “Mayfly” because I got it in my head it was a really beautiful name for a person. (An impulse that arrived separately from a David Foster Wallace short story. I think.) She took me all too literally and the name is appropriate because it was a very short-lived relationship.