Moral failure is the central territory of Canin's rich new collection of novellas. These are stories of ordinary citizens who stumble into extraordinary circumstances and are unable to rise to the occasion. But Canin shows abundant compassion for his characters—a trait he has honed as a resident at San Francisco General Hospital and author of the highly acclaimed Emperor of the Air and Blue River.
Take Mr. Hundert, the narrator of the title novella, a history teacher at an exclusive boarding school. "A man's character is his character," he says when faced with a student cheater whose father happens to be a prominent U.S. senator. Hundert chooses not to expose the boy, but years later, when the boy runs a successful race for a Senate seat, Hundert must ponder why he did not tell the truth years earlier.
Such tests of moral courage may seem extreme, but Canin's characters display a stoutness of heart in the face of adversity. They stare their failures down. Like parachutists who jump out of planes using faulty chutes, they have ti me to contemplate the consequences of their actions. Readers of A Palace Thief will want to catch these falling characters before they hit the ground. (Random, $21)