WHEN I FIRST READ the work of Kevin Canty, I felt an immediate affinity for the carefully poised balance between the beautiful and the ruined. Canty's characters live in a taut stretch of emotion between hope and desperation. In his collection A Stranger in this World, a character driving from Florida to D.C. to collect his mentally ill mother, his drunk father asleep on the back seat, stops to reflect, "This was one of those summer nights that seemed as full of possibility as the day. I eased the window down slowly, carefully, and let the damp wind fill the car, and this trip began to seem almost like a pleasure cruise, an escape from a dull summer."

The setting turns to places like Florida and Arizona, known for their natural beauty and yet overrun with strip malls, stray grocery bags, and pop cans, conveyed through characters who at times manage to consider even the desolate, dry lengths of Wyoming a source of solace, and vodka-and-Cheez Whiz picnics a refuge. The external landscape resonates against what Canty refers to as the "internal, twisted up landscapes" of his characters. His most recent novel, Nine Below Zero, is set in the bleakest, wide-open spaces of eastern Montana -- a landscape not softened but muffled by snow. The land lends itself to the feeling of a dream in which screaming has no effect: "A white horse was bleeding to death in the snow, coming down the hill into the Silver Creek valley. Red snow and the front legs slashing.... Marvin hit the brakes and the Ford went sideways, black ice magic. First he did a straight spin, a 360, wound up somehow going forward again at about forty miles an hour... he saw the horse, a white horse, brilliant red bleeding, blood coming out of its nose and its asshole, eyes still open, looking at him, intelligent: Why are you doing this to me? Marvin knew it was his fault."

The real departure from Canty's previous novel, Into the Great Wide Open, is in the use of multiple points of view. He says, "I wanted to work toward an omniscience in the sense that you have three different points of view, and none of them are me and none of them are right. I hope that you walk away from this novel feeling like you've seen the way the world looks through these really distinct points of view, and that the questions of who's right and wrong haven't been decided for you by the book."

The points of view are those of a Native American man, a grieving housewife who's recently lost her son, and an aging senator left blind after a stroke and a car accident -- none of them representative of Canty's own life experience. And this, Canty says, "created a huge amount of difficulty in writing, because you really want to be careful when you represent experiences that aren't your own. You have to have the courage to think that you can imagine yourself inside another person's experience. That's the one thing you'll never know, what it's like to be inside another person's head. You just can't, you won't.... You take the leap and you take the responsibility for the leap."

On the first page of Nine Below Zero, I initially found reason to question whether Canty was taking that leap successfully. The narrator, giving voice to Marvin Deernose's internal dialogue, says, "The philosophical Indian finds something to admire even in the depths of a hangover." I wondered if Marvin would be so self-referencing, and if the idea of the "philosophical Indian" wasn't based on stereotype.

However, within the same first pages, these sentences become just one aspect of getting to know Marvin Deernose, a fully conceived and believably human character, and I saw that Marvin might reference himself in this way, joking and self-aware.

When asked about creating a Native American character, Canty answered, "There's a long tradition in literary history that involves writing about Native American characters that has more to do with what we, non-Native America, need to believe about Native Americans than the actual experience. I don't want to contribute to that."

A book review of the story collection A Stranger in this World, from an East Indian website states: "Though the book has been hailed by critics all over the Western world, it is still difficult for the Indian reader brought up on Indian values to understand the workings of the Western mind." I'd say it's often difficult for anyone to understand the workings of the human mind; it's the careful writer and the careful reader, who -- through pushing the boundaries beyond preconceived ideas -- make the continual effort to come to a greater degree of understanding. With Nine Below Zero, Canty has intertwined three distinctly separate characters to tell one story, and in that manner has allowed for the complexity of human thought, while making no room for easy answers.

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