Picks and Pans Review: For Kings and Planets

updated 09/21/1998 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/21/1998 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Ethan Canin

At 27, Canin made a spectacular critical debut with his 1988 short story collection Emperor of the Air. In 1991 he tried a novel, Blue River, and did not fare so well. How does a young talent deal with the possibility his gifts have deserted him? Perhaps by writing about mediocrity, as Canin does in his second novel.

When cautious Midwesterner Orno Tarcher meets reckless genius Marshall Emerson at Columbia in 1974, the world is their oyster. Orno is set on being a doctor, Marshall a writer. Years pass and Orno's dream has dimmed: He will be a dentist. Marshall has settled into the decadent life of a Hollywood producer. "I am not the kind to find a new world. You are," says Orno to the friend whose life he has long envied.

Not surprisingly, Canin's best writing—and here it's superb—occurs when he is limning worlds unknown to Orno, like that of Marshall's exotic childhood in Turkey. Unfortunately, in the joyless unfolding of Orno's story, a key figure, Marshall's sister Simone, is badly neglected; the reader hungers to know what she looks like and why Orno suddenly falls for her. It seems even Canin finds Orno's world a bore. (Random House, $24.95)

Bottom Line: Unconvincing tale of a noble average Joe

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