FOR KINGS AND PLANETS\ By Ethan Canin\ Random House.\ 338 pages. $24.
NOVEL During the summer of 1989, paperback editions of Ethan Canin's best-selling short-story collection, ``The Emperor of the Air' were so popular at local swim clubs that they acquired wrinkles, sun-lotion aromas and popsicle stains as they moved from one reader to another.In a fresh, luminous style, the stories in that collection examine the conflict between the desire to invent oneself and the inescapableness of one's genes. The author, a medical student who became a doctor, continued his memorable explorations of the influence of the past on the present in the novel ``Blue River' and the four novellas comprising ``The Palace Thief.'
Heredity stalks many of the protagonists in Canin's short fiction, who are often ordinary people haunted by enigmatic relatives. In ``The Year of Getting To Know Us,' a teenager with a distant, philandering father learns that he, too, might possess such strangeness. In ``American Beauty,' an adolescent in a shaky family receives this indictment from his disturbed older brother: ``You think you're a nice guy and everything hasn't really affected you. But you can't get away from it. ... It's in your blood.'
Other pre-existing conditions also breed damage. Canin's novella ``The Accountant' contains a successful executive so driven by envy of a boyhood friend that he commits a self-destructive theft.
The pursuit of independence and the claims of family also charge Canin's ambitious new novel, ``For Kings and Planets.' Its plot focuses on the symbiotic relationship between a young man from small-town America, Orno Tarcher, and a magnetic New Yorker, Marshall Emerson. The two meet at Columbia University in 1974 when Marshall, who has a photographic memory, identifies Orno from his recollection of the face book, an album of freshmen.
Through the two characters, Canin pits the innocence and dullness of the prairie against the sophistication and duplicity of the northeast. Even-tempered Orno, an insurance agent's son from Cook's Grange, Mo., has a disciplined outlook. The brilliant Marshall, whose father is an acclaimed scientist, lives on the edge. He seems to be toying with his transfixed companion as he introduces Orno to the beauty of Manhattan and the gratifications of bohemia. The relationship between the two has an ominous undertone because Marshall often tests Orno's loyalty. One such design forces Orno to rescue his alter ego from a suicide attempt.
When Marshall jumps college to chase the muses in Los Angeles, Orno rights his shifting course, takes his degree and enters dental school at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. For a while, Marshall's influence is mostly epistolary. However, once Orno becomes involved with his friend's twin sister, Sireone, Marshall changes from mentor to tormentor. When the couple's wedding party forms on Buzzards Bay in Massachusetts, the roots of Marshall's mania are disclosed. But Orno keeps the faith despite Marshall's vicious behavior.
Canin vaults on stage with F. Scott Fitzgerald and other American masters by exploring the clash between regional values and the attraction of opposites. For much of this highly traditional novel, Canin provides a fresh take on familiar material. His command of setting is brilliant. The novel moves from Manhattan, which is lovingly captured, to Los Angeles to New England to an imagined Istanbul, where Marshall allegedly spends his formative years, and each locale is stunningly rendered. Also, for a time, the author achieves suspense from the mystery of Marshall's motives.
But if Canin's genetic studies empower his short fiction, they weaken ``For Kings and Planets.' Self-discovery enriches his stories, in which characters come to recognize their weirdness. But there is too little to learn in this novel. The heartland integrity of Orno Tarcher is never gravely challenged. He briefly condescends to the home folks, and now and then he samples the decadence of his soul-mate, but these episodes do not threaten his decency. The agrarian values of his family allow Orno to maintain his balance. Surely, in a large novel, the main character should do some suffering.
In Canin's best short fiction, heredity appears at the door like a deputy with a warrant. But the often-exceptional ``For Kings and Planets' lacks such intensity, because the hero knows all along who he is.
Michael Gaspeny, winner of the 1998 O. Henry Festival short story competition, teaches English at High Point University.