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For Kings and Planets: A Novel Hardcover – August 11, 1998

3.4 out of 5 stars 68 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Like Philip Roth and Robert Penn Warren, Ethan Canin won the Houghton Mifflin Fellowship for rising stars whose first books hit big. His luminous 1988 story collection, Emperor of the Air remains a must-read, but his second novel, For Kings and Planets, is nonetheless recognizably part of the Canin constellation. He repeatedly features a straight guy (an accountant or other sober type) transfixed by the spectacle of an out-of-control guy (a delinquent and/or child-prodigy brother or brother figure to the main character). This time, it's Orno Tarcher, a Missouri farm boy thunderstruck by his Columbia University classmate Marshall Emerson, a theatrically bratty, sometimes suicidal Manhattan genius. "I grew up with farmers and insurance salesmen," says Orno. "I grew up with Kennedys and insurance salesmen," says Marshall. "I grew up with pigs everywhere," says Orno. "And we had that in common," Marshall replies. (In keeping with their characters, Orno becomes a sensible dentist and Marshall a cynical, coked-up Hollywood producer.)

Canin sensitively evokes Orno's prosaic world--you'd have to read Jane Smiley's The Age of Grief for better fiction about dentistry. But Orno mostly exists to relate Marshall's appealing, appalling antics: his manic raps about his childhood amid the ruins of Istanbul, his sabotage of his own (and Orno's) love life, his Oedipal strife with his chilly, brilliant parents. "Our family seal is a snake twisted in knots," says Marshall's lovely sister. And, reader, Orno marries her. Page for page, Canin's stories better show off his gift for epiphany, but the novel gives him room to develop character, entangle plots, and make a stab at the heart of the family romance. --Tim Appelo

From Publishers Weekly

Many qualities that make a novel masterful are present in Canin's fourth book: richly nuanced characterizations, a sensuous sense of place, easy dialogue, controlled pacing and a story that is a classic parable of the human condition. The narrative vigor of this coming-of-age tale is enhanced by Canin's (Emperor of the Air; The Palace Thief) compassionate view of daunting moral complexities and by his acute sensibility about the strengths and flaws that can determine the future of a promising life. When Oren Tarcher comes to Columbia University from a tiny Midwestern town, another freshman, sophisticated New Yorker Marshall Emerson, befriends him. The friendship is unlikely: Oren is earnest, naive, plodding ("He felt the word Missouri written on his forehead"), while Marshall, the son of two eminent Columbia professors, is charming, cynical, brilliant and possessed of an astonishing eidetic memory that indelibly records everything he's ever read. Oren is further awed when he meets the rest of Marshall's family, though he is disturbed by the rancorous exchanges between Professor Emerson and his son. Though Marshall abandons him for months at a time, Oren is always freshly seduced when his mercurial friend lures him from diligent study to debauched gatherings and sexual liaisons, bringing Oren into contact with something chaotic and undisciplined in his own nature. Even when he understands Marshall's essential vulnerability and begins to fathom Marshall's manipulative and self-destructive behavior, Oren is envious of his friend's undoubtedly spectacular future. Oren himself is for a long time unable to find his own vocation, but he finally muddles into dentistry, where?as he apologizes to Marshall, who has quit college to write a novel?teeth are "not named for kings or planets. They are merely numbers." By the time Marshall adopts the dissolute life of a major Hollywood producer, Oren has fallen in love with his sister, Simone, and is witness to the last acts of a family tragedy. While the plot unfolds with tragic inevitability, Canin doesn't force the pace of his narrative, subtly providing Oren with insights appropriate to his strong moral upbringing and slow maturation. Meanwhile, he creates a rich gallery of characters and offers a potently atmospheric evocation of New York City and, to a lesser extent, small communities in Cape Cod and Maine. What will most impress readers of this engrossing narrative, however, is the dignity and integrity with which Canin writes about fallible human lives. BOMC and QPB selections; author tour. Agent, Maxine Grofsky; editor, Kate Medina.
Copyright 1998 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 335 pages
  • Publisher: Random House; 1st edition (August 11, 1998)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0679419632
  • ISBN-13: 978-0679419631
  • Product Dimensions: 1 x 6.8 x 10 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (68 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,280,785 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By A Customer on October 30, 1999
Format: Paperback
I bought this book partly because I was intrigued by the comments on this page. People seem to have either loved this book or hated it. (Sign of an important piece of art, if you look back through recent history) And the reviews from major professional reviewers have been equally hot or cold. (I've listed a few here so you see what I mean.) The two best reviewers, in my opinion (Christopher Lehmann-Haupt of the NY Times and Alan Cheuse of NPR) both loved it unequivocally, but Rand Cooper (whoever he is) really hated it in his review in the Times Book Review, and Salon did too. So I bought it (used,I admit, but the paperback wasn't out yet and I spend too much on books). So here is my opinion: I consider myself a well-read person (a book a week for the past twenty years), and I would say that this book is one of the two or three most powerful, intelligent, courageous novels that I have read in as long as I can remember. Others I would put in this category are Philip Roth's "American Pastoral" and Mailer's "The Naked and the Dead". It is gorgeously written, psychologically complex, and emotionally unflinching. I just don't see, in the end, why the reviews seem to be so split. It occured to me that younger reviewers might not like the book because it is not hip. That's okay, but if you are, like me, looking for a mature, thoughtful, character-driven novel, then I would say this is a book for you. I could't recomend it more highly.
Here, for your interest, are some of the contrary reviews:
Cristopher Lehmann-Haupt (The New York Times)   Shimmering...luminous...For Kings and Planets leaves you wounded and healed.   Rand Richards Cooper (NYTimes Book Review)   . . .
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Format: Paperback
Beautifully written yet painfully spare, the events in "For Kings and Planets" whoosh by the reader like a subway train. For me the style worked, and it didn't work: It worked in the sense that evoked a certain kind of nostalgia; Canin writes peering back into the past, and his ability to boil down affairs and big moments into singular pages is impressive, to be sure. Less can be more.
But less can be less, too, and at times there just doesn't seem to be much excuse for the sheer lack of dialogue in the book. Canin's characters can barely breathe, he does so much of the talking for them. On the book's opening page two women are mentioned, and you'd guess they figure prominently, but only one of them actually has a speaking "part" in the book, and a small one at that. I can appreciate that Canin is guiding us to package this knowledge as a hazy fling that our main character, Orno Tarcher, once had, but still. At times, it just isn't enough.
The story is not complicated: There is Orno, an earnest Midwestern kid and Marshall, a brilliant, depressed New Yorker. They become friends when they meet Columbia University, mostly by chance, and then remain friends ever as Marshall drifts away into other circles. Canin draws Orno very nicely as a decent kid with a tad too much give in his personality. He takes it on the chin from Marshall a few too many times. And Marshall seems more than willing to throw the punch. And there is Simone, Marshall's sister, a sweet, considerate girl with less brilliance than Marshall but twice as much maturity. Orno recognizes those qualities in her and falls in love.
The book appeals to a certain taste.
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Format: Paperback
I like Canin's short stories, and I really wanted to like this book. I read it in a couple of days, including the last half on a plane, and I must say that by the time I got home from the airport I had pretty much forgotten the whole thing. While Canin is an above-average writer, he treads no new ground here, and with all due respect to my fellow reviewers, to suggest that this novel is a 5 star masterpiece is like eating a nice hot dog for lunch, and proclaiming it the best meal you've ever eaten.
The book, like one reviewer put it, is like a tried and true story of the country mouse and the city mouse. Arno Tarcher comes to Manhattan to attend Columbia, ashamed of his modest beginnings in Missouri, and embarrassed by his parents as he introduces them to his new, sophisticated big city friend Marshall Emerson. The beginning of the novel, including Arno's gradual introduction to college and to NYC, were for me the strongest aspects of the novel. When Marshall starts rubbing off on Arno, as the latter begins staying up all night drinking brandy with pseudo-intellectual Eastern European beatniks at the same cafe every night, I thought the whole thing got a little ridiculous.
Arno to me was the only real well-drawn character in the book. The other characters seemed cardboard and put in the story oftentimes just to act as foils to Arno's small town, Missouri values. Why Marshall goes after Arno's Russian girlfriend, and why he cuts out to spoil a family wedding celebration at Cape Cod, are a mystery that we're just supposed to chalk up to his unpredictability and flamboyance. Then Marshall becomes a Hollywood writer and producer (more evidence of his phoniness, get it?
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