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November 1999

For Kings and Planets

For Kings and Planets*** by Ethan Canin Random House, 1998 Ethan Canin is a physician and a novelist, but above all a craftsman. His writing is marked by the same disciplined strokes and deft handling of trusted materials that bespeak much attentive study of the trade. His latest work, For Kings and Planets, is a carefully constructed story of friendship, pain, progress and, finally, love. Orno Tarcher, a sincere, diligent Missourian, and Marshall Emerson, a bored, cosmopolitan Manhattanite, meet on their first day as Columbia University freshmen. Orno’s first flushed, intoxicated months in New York City are made almost surreal by Marshall’s self-destructive extravagances – his friends, behavior, interests. Orno is swept up by stories of Marshall’s childhood abroad, aristocratic family and late nights spent swilling scotch and smoking hash. Marshall, in turn, is attracted to Orno’s solid rural roots, unwavering moral compass, dedication to learning and self-improvement. Each young man is drawn to the exoticism of the other’s lifestyle and values; in their spinning worlds, this enduring friendship remains the only constant. Eventually, Marshall drops out of school and moves to L.A. where he becomes a television screenwriter and is absorbed into the addled world of Hollywood. Orno, whose Midwestern values are corrupted by the distractions of love and the great city, does not get into medical school, as he and, more importantly, his parents had wished. Within a few years, Marshall has become a successful producer, while Orno has devoted himself to the craft of healing at an undistinguished dental school. Whether they have foolishly squandered their talents or made wise compromises is one of many questions Canin poses. The friendship is repeatedly challenged by women. An exotic Russian with whom Orno loses his virginity is later won by Marshall. Orno falls dangerously in love with Marshall’s only sister. The latter relationship threatens to unglue the old friends, as Marshall repeatedly tests Orno’s integrity and worthiness with reckless, immature acts that jeopardize the happiness of both men. For Kings and Planets may ultimately find deeper resonance with a male readership, since it deals with father-son issues, the notion of identity formed through work and a man’s responsibility to family and society. Yet, as the author traces the trajectory of this poignant, peculiar friendship, readers of both sexes will be held spellbound by this sensitively rendered study of the human condition. <<<

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