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No love lost

Matters of the heart find Canty at his best

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"It ought to make us feel ashamed," wrote Raymond Carver, "when we talk like we know what we're talking about when we talk about love." That's a quote I dug up after reading Kevin Canty's newest book of stories, Where the Money Went. It's a natural place to start, given that University of Montana writing instructor Canty is an inheritor—perhaps the inheritor—of Carver's clean prose and powerful emotional style, and Where the Money Went is about love. Or, more specifically, the book investigates love the same way you'd investigate a long-forgotten culture: by the ruin it leaves behind.

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Canty fills his pages with divorce, betrayal, breakup and longing, from start to finish. In the opening title story a man sits at his kitchen table reckoning the financial cost of his failed marriage. In the last piece, "Burning Bridges, Breaking Glass," a man unsteady under his new-found sobriety risks two marriages and drives 2,000 miles for an hour in a motel with a woman he met during rehab. The stories are filled with the shards and splinters left behind by everyday people who brush up, even briefly, against desire. Yet, at the core of each is hope, an aspiration toward something beautiful and pure, if undefined and unattainable.

Most of Canty's stories revolve around marriage. Of course, marriage has often been batted around, usually as the culmination of romantic love or the foundation of societal morality, but the actual relationship that comprises a marriage is always a little more complicated than what simplistic generalization serves up. It's simultaneously more mundane and more powerful, and at its heart is an ineffable personal bond. In "The Boreal Forest," Canty's wildlife biologist protagonist describes a marriage as "the faith that binds two people together, the doubts that separate us, the conversations and the silences—all happen in private, out of anybody's light but our own." He refers to it as a kind of living entity that's unique to two people and unknowable to everyone else, "the dark side of the moon, the face that's turned away from you." And when it goes awry, as it invariably does in these pages, "when the ex-husband or ex-wife sits you down to tell what it was really like, the story is all hopelessly false."

And maybe that's why Canty uses fractures and breaks for literary fodder—that's where all the stories lie. And like following a shark circling in these dark waters, we see only patterns traced around what's at the center. There's some deeper meaning here, something full of light, but it remains unseen and unknown.

In "The Boreal Forest," our biologist climbs into the mountains to check on hair-sample traps for lynx, the subject of his studies. "Nobody ever sees lynx," he observes. "My colleague Rick Johnson has been working the mountains behind Seeley Lake for thirty years, way back into the wilderness, and he has never seen one. I have never seen one. I have seen tracks, have combed their fur out of traps and sent it off for DNA analysis, have even, on one occasion, even smelled one, I think, though there's no way of knowing for sure. But I have never seen one."

It begins to snow, but the biologist has his GPS and trudges on. But when the GPS mysteriously quits, he takes refuge under a pine, lost. He thinks of the extramarital affair he's having with his wife's best friend, Maria. He knows it's wrong, but she's been his friend, too, for years, and no one's getting hurt, except that she left her husband recently, and maybe he had something to do with that. And then he sleeps.

When he wakes, it's afternoon, the snow's stopped and he sees the trail he climbed. And there in the snow, just a few dozen feet from where he slept, are the tracks of a lynx that chased down a snowshoe hare. "If I had been awake," mulls the biologist, "if I had been watching through the branches of the fir, I would have seen the animal at long last. I felt a sharp sorrow as a lover would. She had been near me, my prey, my love, and I had missed her by minutes."

Somehow, it's the perfect image for the themes running through the book. Love's only form is in its snowy footprints. And Canty, like the rest of us, adhering to Carver's warning, adeptly shows he knows little of what it really is.

Where the Money Went is Canty at his best. He's long since been a master of his craft but this book also contains a poignancy that, for me, had been missing from some of his previous work—like his 2000 novel, Nine Below Zero, which, while elegantly written, came off flat and barren. With Where the Money Went, Canty snaps back to form and displays a kind of wisdom and a jolt of spirit that proves there are few better at writing a story.

Kevin Canty reads from Where the Money Went at Shakespeare & Co. Tuesday, July 14, at 7 PM. Free.

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