The Palace Thief Summary

Ethan Canin

The Palace Thief

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The Palace Thief Summary

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The Palace Thief (1994) by Ethan Canin is a collection of short stories about the lives of various male protagonists as they navigate relationships with those closest to them, many with whom they struggle to find a connection. The book includes four stories, each about fifty pages in length. The title story was made into a film in 2002.

The central thread of the four stories in The Palace Thief involves the conflict of the characters, all of who are relatively naive men ranging in age from forty to seventy years old. They are kind, hard-working, typical middle-class men, but despite their apparent success on paper, they all experience a similar sense of shame or depression over the ways that their lives haven’t been fulfilling. All of Canin’s protagonists spend large portions of the stories examining the places where their lives went wrong, in an attempt to discover more about themselves and, ultimately, to find joy and satisfaction.

In the first story, “The Accountant,” a middle-aged narrator with a quintessential business degree and a long-time position at a successful company becomes entranced, even obsessed, with the success of a childhood friend, whom he remembers as reckless and unstable. The narrator, Abba Roth, describes his life with an air of superiority and stuffiness – his wife demands to go by her full first name, Scheherazade, and he describes the success of his family based on materialism, mentioning a Shetland pony, a swimming pool, and week-long vacations in a cabin on Lake Tahoe.

Abba’s boyhood friend Eugene Peters asks Abba to invest in a new firm manufacturing a magnetic oil plug. Always cautious, Abba refuses, watching as his life remains the same and Eugene’s life becomes increasingly prosperous. Abba is denied partnership in his firm while he watches Eugene use imagination and social instinct to get ahead. The story ends with a baseball game, in which Abba performs better than his friend but Eugene wins the MVP trophy, causing Abba to reflect on his envy and the reasons he thinks so poorly about himself and his own life.

William, a middle-aged man traveling to visit his dying older brother, Clive, in the hospital narrates “Batorsag and Szerelem.” While traveling, he reflects back on his relationship with Clive, a mathematical genius who always outshone not only William but all the other performers at the leagues he entered as a teen. Clive spoke in a secret language that enraged his family and even his girlfriend, Sara, but he was understood completely by his best friend, Elliot. At a pivotal moment in the boys’ youth, Clive was caught in a romantic embrace with his friend Elliot, leading his family to change their perspective of their older son entirely. William reflects back on how that moment, though it allowed William to rise in the ranks in the view of his parents, led to his brother’s downfall and eventual death; William couldn’t fully realize his own success because of his brother’s pain.

“City of Broken Hearts,” written in the third person, is the most straightforward of all the stories. Wilson Kohler’s wife leaves him for another man at his firm, and Kohler falls into a deep depression that he treats by womanizing, telling childish and inappropriate jokes, and becoming an avid baseball fan. He is, eventually, saved by his son, who recognizing that his father’s behavior is the result of grief and loneliness, helps lead him back to both a more solid partner and a more true version of himself.

The title story, “The Palace Thief,” is Canin’s most acclaimed. It is told from the perspective of retired private school teacher Mr. Hundert, who reflects back on his career in order to trace the steps of a student Sedgwick Bell, the son of an esteemed senator who has risen to power as the chairman of the second largest corporation in America. Mr. Hunerdt tells the story of the day he discovered that Sedgwick Bell was cheating in a Roman history competition being watched by many graduates and parents – including Sedgwick’s high-powered father, Senator Bell. Sedgwick nearly wins by cheating, and Hundert reports it to the headmaster who writes him off, saying that the misconduct should be ignored because of the presence of the senator in the audience. Many decades later, Sedgwick invites Mr. Hunerdt to a rematch, where he answers all but one question correctly. Again, Hunerdt realizes that Sedgwick is cheating, and again he chooses to do nothing. At the end of the story, the two men face each other, reflecting on their own behaviors, realizing that nothing has changed in the decades they have been apart.