In 1998, Ethan Canin left medicine to teach fiction at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop (where he was my professor). The best-selling author of the story collections Emperor of the Air and The Palace Thief, and novels including America America and For Kings and Planets, his fiction has been published in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, and The Best American Short Stories. We spoke at a coffee shop in downtown Manhattan.
Ethan Canin: When I went for my medical school interview, I had an old paperback of Henderson the Rain King in the pocket of my coat. I was wearing the best clothes I had, a pair of cords and a sport coat—but when I got to the office, all the other interviewees were lined up in their black suits. As they stood there talking about whether they preferred intravenous versus oral chemotherapy, I thought, “Oh my god, I’m about to get myself into the wrong line of work.” But when I went in for the interview, the guy noticed I had a book in my jacket pocket. He asked what I was reading, and when I took it out, he said, “Oh, that’s my favorite book.” All we did was talk about Henderson the Rain King. I think that’s how I got into medical school.
I think Bellow’s the greatest American writer of his century, personally. When I read him, I’m in awe.
One of my favorite works is the great short story “A Silver Dish,” a story not too many people seem to know. It ends with, for me, one of the most memorable lines in fiction:
That was how he was.
There are five words in that sentence, each one essentially meaningless: That was how he was. Two of them are the same word: “was” and “was.” Hardly any sounds even, in those words, there’s no tilt, no break, no angle to the rhythm—just tap, tap, tap, tap, tap. Of all those words, only “he” and perhaps “was” have any sort of meaning. “How” is technically an adverb the way it’s used here but feels more nounish to me, in the sense that I get a little visual spark when I read it, entirely from what has come before in the story. The whole sentence uses only seven distinct letters, and contains only 15 letters total: three a’s, three h’s, three w’s, two s’s, two t’s, an o, and an e.
It’s an amazingly restrained line from Bellow, who was a poet of the first order. I think he was intentionally restricting his palette. Compare it to some of his other great sentences, like the famous first line of The Adventures of Augie March:
I am an American, Chicago born—Chicago, that somber city—and go at things as I have taught myself, free-style, and will make the record in my own way: first to knock, first admitted; sometimes an innocent knock, sometimes a not so innocent.
You can open that book up to page 400 and find the best sentence you’ve ever seen. It’s an astonishing, volcanic eruption of ideas and language. Or take this section from “A Silver Dish,” when Woody takes a streetcar ride that leads him to the story’s culminating moment:
What he heard and saw was an old red Chicago streetcar, one of those trams the color of a stockyard steer. Cars of this type went out before Pearl Harbor—clumsy, big-bellied, with tough rattan seats and brass grips for the standing passengers. Those cars used to make four stops to the mile, and ran with a wallowing motion. They stank of carbolic or ozone and throbbed when the air compressors were being charged. The conductor had his knotted signal cord to pull, and the motorman beat the foot gong with his mad heel.
That passage is full of visceral, Anglo-Saxon words, and every single one of those words means something instantly. I think that’s what poets try to do: They try to sidestep neurology and go straight to meaning.