Sunday, February 14, 2016

A Doubter's Almanac by Ethan Canin

In the Woods of Michigan 
It was serendipity; I was Up North in Michigan, a stone's throw from a spring fed pond, two hours away from Cheboygan--reading a book whose character's life took him from Cheboygan to a cabin on a small inland lake in Michigan. The character also lived in Lansing, where I lived for many years, in a small Ohio college town similar to where we lived when my husband was in seminary, a half hour's drive from OSU, and in Princeton, a half hour's drive from where we first lived in Pennsylvania. The landscape was all so familiar.

The book was A Doubter's Almanac by Ethan Canin  who also wrote America, America which I read several years ago, an impressive book which has stayed with me. When Canin's new book appear on NetGalley I immediately requested it and was pleased to get an ARC.

The book revolves around an unforgettable character and the son who struggles to understand him. It is about the search for one's father, a quest to understand life and how to live, an exploration of existence.

A Savant from the Woods
In the 1950s Milo Andret grew up fifteen miles inland from the resort town of Cheboygan. His parents were insular and joyless. Milo spent his free hours in the woods surrounding his home, preferring to be alone than with people.

On the Straits near Cheyboygan, MI
When Milo was thirteen he found a beech tree felled in a storm. Inside the tree he envisioned an interlocked, continual chain and he spent the summer carving it out. Over 25 feet long, each link twisted upon itself like a Mobius strip, he secreted it away in a hollow tree behind a cover with reversed screw threads. It would be his life's great work.

He eventually showed the chain to his shop instructor who warned that no one would believe he made it. The year the freighter SS Carl D. Bradley sank along with the fathers of many of his classmates Milo was targeted and beaten by bullies who had heard of his remarkable achievement. His father's response was, "Welcome to the world."

A teacher identifies Milo's special ability and pushes him into a mathematics competition; his winning would bring fame to the school. He won.

Milo attended university in East Lansing and after years of pumping gas in Lansing is accepted into U.C. Berkley. It is the 1970s and Milo discovers love and ambition, addiction and competition.

Pressed into topology by his advisor Milo solves a mathematical problem and finds fame and a position at Princeton. Milo is expected to conquer another mathematical question. His days are spent deep in thought, imagining and testing and failing to find another big idea. His life becomes a slow dance of unraveling into darkness, alcoholism, and decline. He loses his position at Princeton and slides down the scale until he is at a small Ohio private school. Milo has won the Field Medal in Mathematics but his theory is challenged. As Milo tells his son, mathematicians are destined to lose, never able to find what they are looking for.

The Son, Fellow Mathematician, Addict, Lonely Yet Ever-hopeful Soul
The first part of the novel is Milo's early story; in the second part we learn his son Hans has related the story as his father told it to him. We now view Milo through the eyes of the son who desperately wants to understand his father and we learn about Han's own struggles with genius and addiction.

When Hans was thirteen his father takes the family to a wreck of a cabin on a muddy Michigan lake. It was in the Michigan woods that he completed his first great work, the continual chain of wood. He thinks that here he will find his way again. Nature surrounds them. The children watch a pair of red ants drag their prey across the sand and realize the truth about life.

Milo is incommunicative and prey to his demons while his wife plays Pollyanna, looking for the bright side, trying to make choices right. But she is wearing out, ruing the loss of the glamor of being married to an important man, living in Princeton. Her bitterness is expressed in wise insights. When Hans remarks that the Mayflies seem to be committing suicide in pairs she responds that he is right: they are mating. And later when daughter Paulie asks why clean a rented house her mother replies because that's what life is--cleaning a rented house.

The story ends with Hans returning to the lake cottage to be with his father who is in his last days, Everyone who ever believed in Milo, for however short a time, and everyone who ever doubted him, for however long a time also come. It is a time of reckoning.
On a lake Up North in Michigan
Milo Andret is not an easy man to live with, and I mean both within the novel and for the reader. While I was reading The Doubter's Almanac I would wake, at night, and in the morning, puzzling over Milo and wondering if he would solve the questions tormenting him.

It is a dark novel, a hard story. Milo is a failure. He dies over a long time, beginning with the first drink he takes at grad school. Unable to meet his own high expectations and the expectations of his mentors he lashes out indiscriminately. It isn't easy being a genius; people hold them to unreasonably high standards. He holds on to his alcoholism more ardently than he does his lovers.

Days have passed since I finished the novel but the somber and sorrowful feeling lingers. I think of the alcoholics of my family. I think of my father's slow death from cancer, and how my mother asked for morphine knowing she'd never wake again, but unwilling to suffer any longer. After such things sorrow remains, and the questions of life's meaning or lack thereof. I wonder if having a special ability necessitates extraordinary achievement. Had Milo chosen his own path would he have been dissatisfied and driven? I want to read the book again. It is deep and rich and revealing.

The novel offers hope: one can learn, we can become wise, we can choose a good enough life, we can decide that fun and happiness are more enduring than awards and prizes.

Never give up, Milo has instructed Hans. What is it we should hold to, to not give up? Our decision will form our life.

I received a free ebook in exchange for a fair and unbiased review.

A Doubter's Almanac
Ethan Canin
Penguin Random House
Publication Date: February 16, 2015
$28.00 hard cover
ISBN-13: 978-1400068265

Read excerpt from America, America from NPR at
"I've been reading Ethan Canin's books since he first burst on the literary scene...I thought he could never equal the power of...America, America, but...With A Doubter's Almanac, Canin has soared to a new standard of achievement. What a story, and what a cast of characters. The protagonist, Milo Andret, is a mathematical genius and one of the most maddening, compelling, appalling, and unforgetable characters I've encountered in American fiction..." Pat Conroy, author of The Prince of Tides

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