Ethan Canin: 'Blue River'
Edward finds himself taking midnight drives on the highway and closing his eyes for stretches of many seconds. He knows the turns of the road that well, but he also knows he’s taking his life in his hands.
Blue River by Ethan Canin starts out masquerading as a book about Edward, who’s a surgeon and lives in a swanky house with his wife and son in California. But after his older brother Lawrence, who he hasn’t seen in 15 years, makes a surprise visit, the rest of the book is his memory of his childhood and how it was shaped by his brother. It reminded of other novels that center on memories of boyhood and troubled adolescence, like This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolff—and not in a bad way. In Blue River, there’s an absent father who Edward never even met until he was an adult, and a disturbed older brother.
Lawrence’s presence throughout Edward’s childhood was overpowering. He had a wild streak and got in trouble for fighting and stealing and…worse. He was also smart, and science was a kind of hobby for him. To Edward, he was all-knowing. Their mother and sister mostly stayed out of the way.
Ethan Canin is amazing at busting out simple lines that get right at the heart of it and pairs them with beautiful descriptions. Here’s a scene where Lawrence is lighting matches:
“He used to light them and watch them fall into the Mississippi. I stood next to him. We were brothers then. They extinguished in the drop, but halfway down, where the river wind swirled, they sometimes took flight and climbed, reaching us at the top of the cliff, where the thin trails of smoke disappeared while we waited and watched, hoping for the rare match that burst to flame again before our eyes.”
I also highly recommend Canin’s book of stories, Emperor of the Air.
What Edward seems to do throughout Blue River is try to figure out why things ended up the way they did—he feels undeserving of what he thinks of as his luck to have ended up as a successful doctor with a family. But he has an inner demon and an urge to flirt with danger. He retraces the events of his childhood: befriending a boy with more problems than him, Lawrence’s escapades, his own attempts not to follow in Lawrence’s footsteps. What he wants now is to figure out why he is the person he is and why he isn’t satisfied.
In the end, it has something to do with unfinished business, and something to do with faith and a little to do with the inexplicable burning need we have inside us to break out of ourselves.
Do you ever do this? Try to figure out how you became the person you are?
I’m not a mystery, but I think when it comes to who I am today, it’s not only a matter of who my family is or how I was raised (though admittedly, they get most of the credit). Some of my most formative experiences happened in environments they had no part of. Like when I took off for California from the east coast the year after college. Everything we do and everything that happens to us changes who we become. What are some of the formative experiences that have changed you?
Gigglers: I’m not going to seek out the newest hardcovers and tell you whether or not to buy them. And while not the Sunday Review, this Sunday blog will explore my brilliant and fascinating thoughts about books. Please use the comments section to share your own thoughts on this book, or whatever you’re reading.