Where the Money Went
by Kevin Canty
Nan A. Talese, 191 pages, $25
The title story of Missoula writer Kevin Canty‘s new collection Where the Money Went sets the tone and theme for the book, with its wry, sad-funny accounting of a busted-up marriage. “When the thing was over, Braxton sat down at the kitchen table of his apartment and tried to figure out what they had done with the money,” it begins. In less than two pages, Canty provides a clear picture of this family that formed, consumed, and then dissolved, spending money on “cars, landscaping, clothes, vacations” on its way out of existence. Most of the stories revolve around a lonely male narrator who made a hash of some prior romantic relationship or is about to trash his current one. It would all be pretty depressing if Canty wasn’t so funny.
“The Birthday Girl” serves as an example of Canty working at his best. It kicks off with a vivid, immediate start: “Saturday Night at the Sip ‘n’ Dip: Piano Pat is bellowing out her 35,000th rendition of ‘Take Me Home, Country Roads’ while the college boys and girls—home for Christmas, stuck in town till New Year’s—suck mixed drinks off the piano-top bar and sing along. It’s ten o’clock or ten-thirty and the snow is coming down like a freight train outside. I get a Daniel’s ditch to go and take it back to the room, not without regret.”
Our narrator, it’s easy to surmise from the first sentence, is less carefree than those college kids. He’s got to get back to his motel room, where his teenage son, Justin, waits for his mother to come retrieve him after a visit, but she’s snowed in at the Salt Lake airport. Justin tells his dad that his mom is planning to remarry, sees that the news hits him hard, and then tells him it’s okay if he wants to go back to the bar.
The Sip ‘n Dip is an actual bar in Great Falls, Mont., with a window that looks out onto a pool where mermaid shows are held. “You can look this up,” the narrator reports. But there are no mermaids this night, just a drunk, reasonably attractive woman who declares that it’s her birthday and a hefty couple making out in the pool: “Both of us sip our drinks and watch the underwater couple, back behind the bar. The magnifying effect of the water makes their legs look huge, like manatees. They might know we’re watching but they might not. In the blue light, their giant legs twine together. God knows what their upper halves are doing but their legs can’t seem to stop touching.” The narrator has every reason to leave and pass the remaining time with his son quietly in their room, but of course he doesn’t, because Canty’s characters specialize in digging themselves deeper holes.
The theme of real estate, driven by the three D’s (death, divorce, and diapers), is another current running through the book. In “The Emperor of Ice Cream,” Lander’s divorced dad is trying to sell a Montana mansion to a couple that “looked fit and rested and eager—like eager golden retrievers held under restraint, Lander thought. He was afraid they were going to jump up and lick him.” In “The Boreal Forest,” the narrator is out in the Montana wilderness and he reports, “If the weather ever broke, there would be hundred-mile views into Idaho from here. Million-dollar views is what the real-estate people would call them.” In “No Place in This World for You,” the narrator is a realtor in Tucson who is trying to convince a non-committal couple to buy a house while his dissatisfied wife exercises compulsively and his four-year-old son gets everyone in trouble for biting other kids at daycare. In “Sleeping Beauty,” a bachelor narrator invites his friends, two married couples, over for dinner to see his newly renovated apartment. The evening plays out a little like Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” if there were an extra guy, a fifth wheel, thrown in.
Although the stories sometimes feel like they’re shambling along, with one incident leading to another, their satisfying endings reveal that all their moving parts have been working in concert; they often have a classic shape that reminds you of the story-writing rules laid out by past masters. In addition to echoes of Carver, there’s a detail in “No Place in This World for You” that seems to follow Chekov’s gun rule–“One must not put a loaded rifle on the stage if no one is thinking of firing it,” Chekhov wrote to a friend. But in Canty’s case, he’s loaded his story with a biting preschooler named Walter who delivers a fateful chomp at the perfect dramatic moment. “The world hates a biter,” the narrator reflects internally to his son, “and my love cannot protect you.”
Canty’s prior two short story collections were set all over, but most of the tales in Where The Money Went take place in Montana or other parts of the West. Canty introduces a new element to his fiction with stories in which the Western landscape plays an integral role, as in “In The Burn,” in which a forest fire fighter whose girlfriend is about to break up with him takes his girlfriend’s son to see a burn area, and “The Boreal Forest,” in which a scientist heads out to the snowy Montana woods to research lynx. It’s as though hanging out with all the nature writers in Montana has rubbed off on Canty.
But then the scientist spends most of his time in the woods thinking about how he cheated on his wife with her best friend, so it’s clear we’re still in Canty country, which isn’t such a bad place to be as long as you’re not married to one of his protagonists. There’s longing, love, loss, betrayal, too much drinking, and a whole lot of post-divorce change-of-address forms to fill out there, but at least Canty keeps you laughing along the way.
Kevin Canty will read from his new collection in Seattle at Elliot Bay Book Co. on August 4 (7:30 p.m.) and in Portland at Powell’s on Hawthorne on August 6 (7:30 p.m.).