book Honeymoon and Other Stories

reviewed by Matt Briggs

Published in Issue No. 49 ~ June, 2001

Despite the odd fact that Raymond Carver and Ernest Hemingway have
both been tagged with the term “realistic writer,” both write as if
they are more concerned with style and form than any kind of fidelity
to experience as actually lived by living, breathing people. The fact
that they foregrounded technique in this way essentially precluded
them from being successful at fooling the reader into believing the
reality of their stories. Where Sherwood Anderson often concealed his
writing in the voices of his characters, Hemingway’s story structure
and the sentences he used often competed for attention with his
characters. His stories are as much about how he tells them as what he
tells the reader. And while Raymond Carver certainly isn’t the
only writer to carry on Hemingway’s mode of telling stories, his name
remains a popular byword for a certain kind of fiction.

I suspect both writers would squirm away from the majority of writing
passed off under their names, with its formulaic adherence to The
House Rules of the American Short Story
.  The kind of writing they’re
often associated with usually has pleasant characters and mostly
smooth writing that only makes itself present in the odd lyrical
passage.  This writing harkens back to Hemingway or Carver the way the
Olive Garden harkens back to an authentic Italian bistro. These books
are well written and words like “gorgeous” and “essential” have been
used to describe them. Dull as ditch water, I suppose, would not make
great dust jacket copy.

There has suddenly resurfaced, I suspect in reaction to this kind of
writing, the wild and jagged fiction of the 1970s, without the
academic luggage of meta anything or any evidence of the Stetson
pointed shadow of Donald Barthleme. While unrealistic fiction
continued to exist in the 1980s, realism was king.  Lydia Davis and
Diane Williams both published books in the same decade that saw Ethan
Canin’s The Emperor of the Air. But now there seems to be something
going on. Hardly a literary movement, but something unified enough
that it warrants Vince Pissaro in Harper’s declaring yet another short
story renaissance. These writers don’t seem to hang out together
much, last summer’s issue of Conjunctions, “The State of the
Art: Fiction,” not withstanding. They seem mostly united by a distaste
for the clean, well-wrought realistic story.

Which finally brings me to Kevin Canty. While his books bare the
tell-tale jacket flap names of Raymond Carver and Flannery
O’Conner,  Honeymoon and other stories opens, inexplicably, with
a monologue from the point of view of Godzilla, written, first person,
from the point of view of a giant, bipedal lizard. This book only
superficially resembles his first one, A Stranger in this World, a
collection of realistic stories in the Hemingway mode. The stories are
often uncomfortable in the way that overhearing intimate details about
strangers is uncomfortable and everything that happens in this book
could actually happen, maybe actually did happen.

The cover of Honeymoon serves as the first clue. Sure, the author
isn’t responsible for the cover art, but there it is, the first
warning sign that the package it wraps isn’t like the first book
of stories. I have the Vintage paperback edition of his first book and
it has a stark photograph of a guy I imagined as Kevin Canty. (It
isn’t him). The photograph’s color, a block of bleachy
aquamarine and a rubbery orange, are at once festive and cheap. A
twenty-something guy in a rumpled tank top and tan, with a killing
time set to his face, holds a cigarette to his head. He has a bad
haircut. The image speaks of an unself-conscious honesty. The new book
has the faux realism of a Magritte, a pastoral landscape out of an
18th century French painting. Over the top of this image is a knotted
bed sheet. Juxtaposed to the collection title, Honeymoon, it implies a
story, a suggestion of a connection but not really a connection. The
image speaks of a conscious, even arty, honesty. Unlike the first
image, this one rubs my nose in how realism can be faked. I once heard
an artist describing her return from an abstract style to realism, say
“the technique of realism,” relegating realism to say, the technique
of macaroni collage.

It’s just a cover. Kevin Canty might not even have seen the
cover until his copy arrived in the mail.

But the book opens with that Godzilla monologue.

And he’s done things with his style. He’s gone from Raymond Carver’s
book Cathedral, the voice of someone telling you a story, to What We
Talk About When We Talk About Love, a terse insinuation of a voice.
Furthermore, these stories seem influenced by the sea change in
fiction. No longer are the stories undoubtedly real. The voices of the
various narrators are real, they sound like voices, but the stories
have a lot they aren’t telling me, a lot in some cases I need to know
to make sure sense out of what they are telling me. These stories
confront how unreal the reality of American life has become at the
millennium. The stories use a realistic mode, but it is no longer
realism — which I think requires a sort of faith that you mean what
you say you mean.  Instead they use the technique of realism. The
stories are just too naked, too empty of words, to be realistic.

These stories are minimalist. Maybe not with a capital “M”, but they
are unfussy, simple, and low key, you know, minimal.

Minimalism or compression often implies that the author has reduced or
condensed the work somehow. Raymond Carver said he wrote a forty page
short story to get a ten page one. The stories in Honeymoon feel more
like glancing blows, carefully laid sentences that carry much more
weight than a simple subject, verb object generally does. It feels
more like Kevin Canty wrote the sentences and let them imply what they
would. I suspect he didn’t cut and whittle the writing down to
arrive at a sentence that most accurately expressed what he cut. The
sentence says what it says and implies what it implies.

Mostly this results in a sort of elegant precision. The short,
closed-lipped paragraphs in short, closed-lipped stories start and
end, passing just enough information along. In “Red Dress” a boy
dresses in his mother’s cocktail dress. “I slipped the dress on,
the red dress. I looked at the lipsticks, the bottles of perfume; I
looked at my shoulders in the mirror. A stranger’s face stared
back at me, a girl’s face, mine.”

In some cases, though, this bare style doesn’t work very well because
the story just doesn’t contain enough information. The title story,
“Honeymoon,” follows a man and a woman who’ve just lost their
girlfriend. “Jane’s girlfriend and mine, too, just married this
third party,” and they’ve left the wedding and are drinking
their way home and arrive at a moment where they both realize they are
lonely. The story moves to this moment, and ends with this tentative
connection. The only thing that’s clearly defined in the story
is that they aren’t going to get together. Paragraphs that would
usually contain layers of information come out as, “It’s the
last ten minutes before dark. The air is luminous grey.” This is a
paragraph of description so closed-lipped that it might as well not be

But in general, the stories say enough. They hint at the potential of
a true crime headline behind everyday American life. The so-called
real news has descended into a kind of weekly horror show of gothic
tales. Satanists abduct a woman and her two children. A maimed woman
runs naked down a New Mexico Highway having escaped a make-shift
dungeon.This is life. Kevin Canty’s stories concern strangers
working out their strangeness and navigating potential violence. In
“Scarecrow,” a bickering couple driving an old car with a U-Haul
trailer across the desert pass what they think is either a dead body
or some stray homeless man dying in the ditch. They continue to bicker
as they go back to recover the body, and find the body then, a wizened
corpse. “He wears a suit coat and black shirt, black jeans, boots that
have burst at the sides. His toes peak through the gap, brown and
wrinkled like Greek olives.” In “Little Palaces” two strangers invite
a girl to go fishing with them. One of the characters says, out loud,
a threat carried throughout the book, “She’s worried
they’re going to find her disembodied torso in the woods
someplace. Don’t you read the Weekly World News?”

It seems, then, that Kevin Canty by loosening his grip on reality has
found a useful middle ground between the nostalgic, realistic writers
adhering to The House Rules of American Fiction and the wilder,
unstable fiction of writers trying to burn the house down.

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Matt Briggs is the author of The Remains of River Names, published by Black Heron Press. His stories have appeared in The Northwest Review, The North Atlantic Review, StringTown, The Mississippi Review, ZYZZYVA and elsewhere. Essays have been in The Washington Free Press, The Raven Chronicles, and The American Book Review. He lives in Seattle with his wife and daughter.