Picks and Pans Review: Emperor of the Air

UPDATED 02/01/1988 at 01:00 AM EST Originally published 02/01/1988 at 01:00 AM EST

by Ethan Canin

Like a spider's web, this collection of spare, precise short stories is cleverly alluring and deceptively strong. Canin, 27, is something of a prodigy. He published a short story at 18, and this book appears as he is in his last year as a medical student at Harvard. He also reflects an uncommon sensitivity and compassion. The characters in these nine varied stories range from teenage boys to the protagonist of the title selection, a retired astronomy professor. The professor is old and sick, his beloved, 250-year-old elm tree is old and sick, and he is childless. All he wants is someone to take outside under the night sky so he can point out the constellations, as his father had done for him. He consoles himself only slightly by thinking, "At a party now, I can always find a drinking husband who will come outside with me and sip cognac while I point out the stars and say their names." The other stories include one that is a surprisingly romantic tale of an elderly couple who have become estranged: "Time has made torments of our small differences and tolerance of our passions." Another story is about a 27-year-old man who, as he leaves home, imparts to a younger brother what he believes is the ultimate wisdom: "If something ever goes wrong, you're going to turn into a son of a bitch, just like me." These stories are all brief, without being slight; they are often touching, never sentimental. Canin also knows the difference between being concise and being enigmatic. It's a toss-up, of course, as to whether the world needs another good doctor more than it needs another good writer, but it would be a shame if the only thing Canin published from now on were papers on gallstones or athlete's foot. (Houghton Mifflin, $15.95)

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