Friday, August 16, 1996

An Interview with Kevin Canty

An interview with Kevin Canty, discussing his book Into the Great Wide Open
Published August 16th, 1996, in The Minnesota Daily’s A&E Magazine

Even the Losers
Into the Great Wide Open Explores Teen Life

By Kevin Canty
Doubleday, $21.95

Does America really need another coming-of-age story? Cynics will say no: Everything about growing up has been said in Huckleberry Finn, Catcher in the Rye, and I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Although these classics still resonate deeply, modern life changes so rapidly that our writers have to scramble to interpret the ever-evolving experience of adolescence.

As a consequence, the last decade has seen a glut of novels and memoirs dealing with the subject. Some are good; a few are great: Tom Perrotta’s Bad Haircut: Stories of the Seventies and Tobias Wolff’s This Boy’s Life, to mention two. Short story writer and novelist Kevin Canty adds to this growing field, bringing a valuable new voice.

His first story collection, A Stranger in this World, features some of the most memorable and, at times, disturbing views of modern adolescence. In the story “Blue Boy,” the main character, a lifeguard named Kenny, almost allows a boy to drown because he’s too stoned to notice. Another character, Paul from “Pretty Judy,” finds himself seducing an attractive retarded woman, not knowing whether his actions are right or wrong.

“I guess if I had one subject that overrides a lot of these [stories],” Canty said in an interview during his book-tour stop in Minneapolis, “it would be identity—looking for an identity. ‘Who am I? How do I put a self together?’ And once you’ve constructed yourself, you do something that your constructed self can’t recognize. How do you assimilate that? ‘I’m a good person; I’m not that kind of person.’ And yet you did that; and yet you caused that. What do you do when you don’t know yourself anymore? Those are the moments I’m really interested in.”

Canty’s characters constantly redefine themselves because of changing situations. The main character of Canty’s new novel, Into the Great Wide Open, is a revised version of the Kenny in “Blue Boy,” and he struggles to adapt himself to his problematic seventeen-year-old mind and body.

Jaded, overly analytical, and way too cool for words, Kenny plays a kind of stoned Holden Caulfield. At the novel’s start, he meets Junie on a “Liberal Religious Youth” weekend retreat that their parents have forced them to attend. The two quickly pair off, and during the next nine months they become each other’s repository for pain, jealousy, and, sometimes, love.

If all this sounds too familiar, well, that’s the point. Canty hits all the hot spots: teen sexuality, familial neglect, alcoholism, suicide attempts, and, of course, pregnancy. But Canty treats these subjects with a rare insight—and sense of humor—achieving a level of immediacy that jars the reader into recognition.

Written in the third person—but limited to Kenny’s field of vision—Into the Great Wide Open explores adolescent self-perceptions and the ways in which teens reconcile this vision with their skewed worldview. The novel follows Kenny’s thought processes, going into his mind to record his observations, which are often faulty.

“A lot of times these things happen,” Canty says, “and [Kenny] doesn’t see it. There’s this delayed decoding, where he’ll only figure out later, ‘Oh, that’s what was really going on.’ In my life, often, the important things happen, and I don’t really realize it at the time. It’s only later, in some kind of retrospect [that things make sense]. But Kenny’s so jammed up in terms of experience—a lot of times he’s really running on instinct. He doesn’t quite know why he’s doing things, and he keeps making judgments about himself, and about half of them are wrong.”

But Kenny keeps trying, sounding out different versions of his imagined self in his head. He goes through several drafts of each observation, and Canty uses intricate and often hilarious wordplay to record these thoughts. As Kenny struggles to find the words, he gets nearer to his own truths and to his own identity.

“I guess I believe in language as a means of controlling the world,” Canty says. “Whether you’re a writer or a cement block salesman, finding a word that’s adequate to your situation—finding out, ‘Oh, yeah. That’s what I am’ or ‘That’s what this is’—is a really fascinating process.”

This attempt at self-mastery through language recalls James Joyce’s A Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man. The wordplay, the excursions into the character’s consciousness, and Kenny’s megalomania all resemble Joyce’s treatment of the young Stephen Dedalus. But unlike Stephen, Kenny is not based on the author’s own younger self.

“I don’t think he’s autobiographical,” Canty says. “You take snippets of your own life. You have to, because this is the only experience of being a human being that I’m ever going to have. So you’ve got to base it somewhere. And a lot of the furniture of adolescent life in [the novel] is similar to my own high school catastrophe. … I dropped out of high school. I was kind of a disreputable jerk. But he’s really a made-up character. … It’s all just lies.”

Canty ends the novel on an odd note, leaving Kenny in a situation that’s as ambiguous as it is final. The question looms for the reader: What will Kenny do with his life? With Kenny’s gift for words, the most obvious future for him would be as a writer, but Canty was reluctant to give such an easy answer.

“I don’t know,” Canty says. “In some sense, I’ve deliberately left his world past the end of the book unexplored…. This wordplay makes me think he’s somebody who could be engaged by [writing], but I kind of left his future up for grabs.”

—David Wiley

Friday, August 2, 1996

Snakebite Sonnet, by Max Phillips

A review of Snakebite Sonnet, by Max Phillips
Published August 2nd, 1996, in The Minnesota Daily’s A&E Magazine

Venom Wearin’ Denim
Max Phillips Stuns with Debut Snakebite Sonnet

Snakebite Sonnet
By Max Phillips
Little, Brown, $22.95

In the first chapter of Max Phillip’s debut novel, Snakebite Sonnet, the ten-year-old protagonist, Nick Wertheim, attempts to suck the snake venom out of the nineteen-year-old Julia Turrell’s leg. “If Julia had to die for me to suck her leg,” he thinks, “then it was worth it. I’d die too, of course; fair’s fair… I couldn’t bear to spit Julia’s blood on the ground, so I swallowed, thinking, Better Not.”

Although the snakebite wasn’t poisonous, this scene introduces perfectly Nick’s obsession with the venomous Julia. A stranger to Nick’s halcyon childhood, Julia dazzles with her fast lifestyle—her wild clothes, her poetry, her lovers—and Nick is snared at first glance: “The first time I saw Julia, I wanted to lie down with her, though I was 10 years old and had no idea why I wanted to lie down with her, or what I might do about it once I had.”

What follows are twenty-one years of sheer agony, in which Nick plays puppy dog to the oblivious Julia. He misses out on all of life’s normal milestones, because Julia’s overwhelming predominance in his life eclipses all other influences. Because he meets her before puberty, she marks his sexual awakenings, and all his future desires entail her. He never learns to fall in and out of love; he never learns to be independent; and although he goes through all the motions, he never develops a wholly singular identity.

Although Nick’s obsession is the central issue, Phillips never allows Snakebite Sonnet to fall into the monotone that obsession so easily brings. The novel is intense but also subtle, building and layering to create a vision of human weakness that transcends Nick’s single narrative voice. Phillips employs innumerable visual and tactile cues—snakes, sisters, and lots of sex—sending the reader deeper and deeper into novel: farther, in fact, than Nick’s own understanding of the story.

Perhaps Phillips’ most interesting accomplishment is the novel’s intricate construction. Arranged into fourteen chapters, Snakebite Sonnet is both a poem and a novel. A line from Julia’s “Snakebite” sonnet heads each chapter, and it’s difficult to separate cause and effect: Because Julia gives Nick her sonnet, does the sonnet dictate the novel’s structure, or vice versa. Like Italo Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler, which uses a similar device, Snakebite Sonnet is an intricate game with endlessly circling signifiers. But the game’s power is never overshadowed by technical cleverness.

Although this novel’s overt narrative deals exclusively with memory, it’s ultimately about redemption; it’s about the future and how to move into it. But it’s not an easy redemption, nor an ideal one. Nick knows he’ll never fully recover from Julia, and like a heroin addict, he “chooses life” at the cost of a great compromise.

With its 300 pages of anguish and frustration, this novel’s overall effect is draining. It leaves a void in the reader’s mind and heart, but this void—like the dull ache of loss—is more welcome than any answer that the novel could possibly give.

Like his character Julia, Phillips amazes with his luxury and extravagance. His narrative resources and poetic gifts are already fully formed, making Snakebite Sonnet one of the finest and most heartbreaking debuts in recent memory. The only problem is that this novel is so good, so exhausting, and so all-encompassing that it’s hard to imagine anything beyond it.

—David Wiley