From Vladivostok to Gibraltar on His Knees: A Profile of Ethan Canin

Kevin Nance

Although the seeming ease and clarity that are trademarks of Canin's writing were there from the beginning—his earliest stories often read as if they were written by someone with the midcareer seasoning of, say, John Cheever, to whom he's often compared—they took time to develop. For much of Canin's adult life, he has struggled with bouts of indecision over whether to pursue writing or medicine—or both—as a career. After graduating from Stanford University in 1982 with a degree in English, Canin attended the Writers' Workshop; unhappy with the progress he had made there, he entered Harvard Medical School in 1984. Over the next decade, he vacillated between writing and medicine. He received his MD from Harvard and his California medical license in 1992; that same year he began a residency in internal medicine—which included stints working in emergency rooms—at the University of California, San Francisco, but abandoned the position in 1994. Three years later, and with his usual ambivalence, he accepted an invitation to join the Writers' Workshop faculty, taking another year before finally deciding to make the arrangement permanent.

Canin has always been fascinated by politics. In much of a daylong interview at his lakeside cabin near Elk Rapids, Michigan, where he was spending a week with his wife, Barbara, and their three young daughters, Canin's talk about writing and politics is inextricably linked. His interest in both grows partly out of his heightened sensitivity to issues of class. Canin grew up in a lower-middle-class Jewish family that moved around the Northeast when he was a child, then settled in San Francisco when his father, a music teacher and later a concert violinist, took a job there. His parents sent him, on scholarship, to an elite private school—where, for the first time in his life, he says, "I met people who had maids." Later, as a student at Harvard, he would rub elbows with the sons and daughters of the eastern aristocracy. These experiences left him with an almost Proustian awareness of the double identities produced by social mobility, an awareness that is reflected not only in the perspective of his new novel's narrator, but also, Canin notes, in the stump speeches of this year's presidential candidates.

"If you've moved classes at all in your life, as a lot of Americans have, you're always carrying with you two classes at once: the class of your childhood and your current class," Canin says. "You can see that in John Edwards, who thinks of himself as a poor kid to this day—just as Hillary Clinton, in a funny way, thinks of herself as a Welsh coal miner, because that's her ancestry. Obama has the same thing. Two generations to get from a hut in Kenya to the possible presidency of the United States!"

Canin sees Barack Obama as a potential redeemer of American liberalism, a noble tradition tarnished by a series of scandals, many sexual in nature (Gary Hart and Donna Rice, Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky, Gary Condit and Chandra Levy), that began with Chappaquiddick. "I can't deny that that was probably what got me thinking about the book," Canin says. "Historically it was important; it was just around the time when it became pejorative to call somebody a liberal. I think Ted Kennedy gave an image for the haters of liberalism to focus on, and that was unfortunate. Politics is an emotional question, not a rational question, and the feeling was that he was going to endanger our daughters and save himself—at the cost of us, you know?"

Canin cringes when he considers the possible connections readers could draw between Henry Bonwiller and Edward Kennedy—"partly because I don't want people to think this is a diatribe against Kennedy," whose political contributions he venerates—but he knows they are inevitable. "The larger question in the book has to do with the fact that you have to be grievously wounded as a human being to want that kind of political power, I think. With the Henry Bonwillers of the world—great, public-spirited men, but vain, and with tragic flaws—what are you going to do with a mixed bag like that? The answer in politics is, you just have to live with it."