"All alone and paralyzed in the middle of everything: the night, her life, her kitchen," is how Kevin Canty early on describes June, a major character in his extraordinarily fine new novel, "Everything." Canty, who teaches creative writing at the University of Montana in Missoula, has written three collections of short stories and now four novels, many taking place in his adopted state and all populated with troubled individuals trying to find their way in a life filled with love, death and many complications.
"Everything" revolves around June and her good friend RL, and opens with their commemorating -- as they have for 11 years -- the birthday of her late husband, who was also RL's best friend since childhood. But this time, June announces that she's letting go of this tradition, moving on with her life ("I'm nobody's widow anymore"). Throughout "Everything" she does just that: She brings Howard into her life, who becomes her Realtor, her lover, her landlord, and she develops a closer friendship with Layla, RL's 19-year old daughter.
All the characters in "Everything" are a bit lost, they let things happen to them and they react; June's decision acts as a catalyst that stirs up everyone, but even she has to fight indecisiveness: "I'm just sitting here waiting for the dog to die." RL, a divorced single dad who owns a fly and tackle shop, later reconnects with Betsy, his old girlfriend, now a married mom who lives deep in the Montana mountains, and befriends her as she struggles with cancer. Edgar is a river guide, a young married father who works for RL but is also an artist who paints a devotional series of portraits of Layla and becomes, not surprisingly, involved with her romantically.
Canty depicts people and places impressively: He deftly captures the essence of characters (on RL: "He lit his cigar and sat back in his lawn chair to watch. Man, drink, deck, summer night, cigar.") and their environment ("Then came the glory days of fall. The larch turned gold in the high country, gold on green, and the cottonwood leaves drifted down the river in all their colors."). "Everything" employs some distinct stylistic devices, including the omission of quotation marks, which integrates the reader into the characters and helps blur the differences between their dialogues and their thoughts; also, there are no chapters -- instead, the book is divided into more than 50 sections, seamless vignettes that flow from character to character, occasionally punctuated with curious triple asterisks that act as pauses.
From beginning to end, "Everything" is one of those stunning rare novels with beautiful language, an intriguing structure and a gripping narrative. We are fortunate that Kevin Canty, already a great storyteller, has just written his finest work.
Jim Carmin reviews fiction and other books for the Portland Oregonian, and poetry for Solar Mirage.