Woe to the college professor who wakes up middle-aged with a graduate student lying next to him. For even if he beds down with the comeliest of co-eds, he will pay for his transgression—and then some—in the scorn, ridicule and judgment of his friends, colleagues and loved ones.
No man is an island. No man, that is, but the college professor who plucks from the vine.
And yet, some of them go ahead and do it anyway, men like Richard Winslow, the fat, drunk, falling down house of a failed poet at the center of Kevin Canty’s spry third novel, Winslow in Love. As we begin, Winslow rolls into Missoula for a semester-long teaching gig. He is blocked and bloated, peppered with melanomas. If he were a car he’d be your friend’s ’69 Chevy with a hole rusted in the floor and a door that doesn’t close. Amazingly, he manages to meet a woman as bad off as he is. Only she’s 35 years younger than he is.
What follows reads like the closest equivalent to a Tom Waits song one can find between two covers. Winslow is in the process of turning what should have been a life preserver—his job in Missoula—into an albatross. He scares off his wife, signs up for a class and trudges through the snow to teach Rilke to kids with undergraduate degrees from Harvard and Stanford. Not surprisingly, they aren’t quite sure what to make of their muttering, misanthropic teacher.
None of them except Erika Johnson, a skinny waif so riddled with piercings “she looked like a change purse jangling.” When Winslow retires to his office to sulk and nurse his self-pity, one paper cup of Johnnie Walker at a time, Erika follows. She matches him drink for drink, issue for issue, and like a man falling in love with his own demise, Winslow feels the first stirrings of desire.
This is not the first time Canty, an associate professor of creative writing at UM, has posted his own bitter valentine to self-destruction. Marvin Deernose, the American Indian carpenter of his 1999 novel Nine Below Zero, had hardnosed affection for a woman that even livestock would know was bad news. Several of Canty’s beautifully crafted short stories feature narrators who just won’t allow themselves to dodge a bullet.
But whereas the cast of Nine Below Zero had every reason to earn our sympathy—and didn’t—the misfits of Winslow in Love have a host of reasons not to, but do. Part of the reason is that Canty has whipped his prose into just the right tone, two parts gravel-voiced realism, one part looking for a chance at redemption. Traveling down into the valley on his way to Missoula, Winslow sees a vista and these two impulses merge:
“Then, farther down the pass, this happened: the clouds broke open and then all the way open and the sun blasted down. It was not like winter sunlight at all but full and strong, he could feel the heat of it even through the window. The snowcovered hills were lit so bright you could barely look at them, and the green trees down by the water shined. Winslow felt his heart lift: sunlight. Maybe this would be all right.”
That mixture of Hemingway cadence and poetic lilt is a dangerous one—it both pulls us close and tells us to keep our distance—but time and again Canty threads the line straight on through to our sympathy. Winslow, in spite of his griping, comes across as genuine and humane, not so far gone as to be reckless with other people’s hearts (even if he drives drunkenly so often Canty will likely attract MADD protesters at his literary events). In one bittersweet sequence, Winslow even goes on a date or two with a more appropriate match, a colleague with so much emotional baggage that taking clothes off is off-limits.
As this set piece reveals, exploring what exactly constitutes appropriate in matters of love is a big part of this book. Coyly, cleverly, some of this is worked out in Winslow’s poetry class. If you read Rilke, Winslow would say to his class, love is an angel that comes down from above—bodiless, wordless and ethereal—like divine grace. If you read W.H. Auden, however, it comes in the form of a hard-drinking old bat who schleps to the bar in his bathroom slippers.
The point of Winslow in Love is to say that love either ravishes you or it doesn’t—it either causes you to drop everything and hit the road with a bottle of whiskey, some cigarettes and fuck-all for a destination, or it doesn’t. Coasting into his sixth decade, running on the fumes of his unachieved ambitions, Richard Winslow discovers he has nothing to lose by putting all his chips down on a possibly crazy co-ed who needs rescuing as badly as he does. We know it will end badly, that even the best road trips have to end. And yet I dare you to look away.
Kevin Canty will read from and sign Winslow in Love Tuesday, Feb. 15, at Fact & Fiction, 220 N. Higgins Ave. 7 PM. Free.