Ethan Canin

Emperor of the Air

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Emperor of the Air Summary

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Emperor of the Air (1985) is a short story collection by Ethan Canin. Containing nine stories, Emperor of the Air was Canin’s first published fiction, appearing shortly after he graduated from the Iowa Writer’s Workshop with his MFA in 1984.

The title story is narrated by an unnamed sixty-nine-year-old man who teaches high school science. He has recently had a heart attack. His wife, Vera, has gone out to walk; she remains vibrant and energetic. He used to keep up with her, but his failing health has slowed him down.

The narrator’s neighbor informs him that the old elm tree on his property is diseased, which he already knows. The neighbor, Pike, argues that the old tree must be cut down to save the younger trees on his own property; he returns the next week with a chainsaw. Arguing that his tree is centuries old, the narrator contacts a local nursery for help. He is told that the tree might be saved. He resists Pike’s demands, telling him the tree, already old when he climbed it as a boy, deserves better.

He saves the tree and reminisces about his childhood. He remembers a terrible fire that threatened to destroy the town; he climbed into the tree to watch; later, his mother refused to leave and his father opted to let her stay behind. Deciding to infect Pike’s trees with the insects afflicting his own in order to save them all, the narrator collects insects and then hides in Pike’s bomb shelter. Not able to go through with it, he throws away the insects. The next day, he exhorts the paper boy to throw down his bike and look up at the stars.

In “The Year of Getting to Know Us,” Lenny is speaking with his counselors, who ask him if he doesn’t want to let people near him. Lenny responds that he is a reasonably happy man. We learn the reasons Lenny has to not be happy: his father is dead, his wife had an affair. Lenny asserts that he is struck by the good fortune of his life despite these events. However, everyone doubts Lenny’s happiness, insisting it cannot be real. When his father passes away, all Lenny feels is physical sensations.

In “Lies,” Jack explains that he is very mature and grown up for his age because, while other guys of eighteen are kids, he is getting married. As Jack describes his relationship with Katy, there are hints that they are getting married because they “must,” because Katy is pregnant. Jack does not say this, preferring to linger on the maturity of his decision and the assumed happiness he must be feeling because he is getting married. Jack admits he is a liar, but he refuses to lie by telling Katy that he loves her, dodging the moment each time. In the end, Jack realizes he must tell Katy he loves her; he lies to himself, convincing himself that he does love her in order not to be lying when he tells her.

“Where We Are Now” describes an elderly couple, whose marriage has become cold and remote. They begin touring houses for sale in their neighborhood, allowing them to bring imagination and unexpected magic back into their lives. As they tour expensive houses they cannot afford, their relationship briefly flourishes again.
In “We Are Nighttime Travelers,” a middle-aged woman tells her husband that she saw someone at their window the night before. He admits that he has been lying to her about where he goes every day, spending his time at the local aquarium. He begins writing poetry to express himself; when he shows the poems to his wife, they begin their relationship anew.

An unnamed narrator says that she is a waitress, in “Pitch Memory.” Rescuing her mother, who is once again in trouble for stealing something, she has a bitter and familiar exchange with her about her unmarried life and low-stakes job. The narrator insists she is happy and doesn’t want a family, a husband, or a career. Her family members are all gifted with perfect pitch, the ability to perfectly mimic any pitch or sound, but she lacks this ability. However, by the end of the story, she believes she is attuned to pitches that her family is incapable of hearing and that this is actually an advantage for her.

“American Beauty” tells the story of a sixteen-year-old boy. In a monotone and unemotional style, he talks about his twenty-seven-year-old older brother, Lawrence, who was born with several deformities, including missing fingers that leave his hands looking cloven. His family has always treated Lawrence as a monster or a demon. When Lawrence is told by his sister that he will never get a job because of his hand, he reacts with surprising and shocking violence that both confirms and conflicts with his status as a monster.

“The Carnival Dog, the Buyer of Diamonds” follows young Myron and his father, Abe. Abe believes it is his responsibility to toughen his son up and train him for success in physical contests, but instead, dominates him, making him dread these contests. The central event is the breath-holding contest, which Abe always easily wins.

“Star Food” tells the story of Dade, who works in his father’s grocery store. He notices an older woman shoplifting, and this prompts him to ponder how he wants to live his life, seeing his response to this event as the defining moment. Dade sees the world in a magical way. In the end, he catches her red-handed but decides not to punish her.