By Bruce Jacobs

By Kevin Canty
Doubleday ($25.95, 282 pp.)

Where do you start a novel called “Everything?” Kevin Canty opens with two protagonists, June and RL, sitting on the bank of a Montana river drinking Johnnie Walker Red from the bottle. It is July fifth, the birthday of RL’s best friend Taylor who was also June’s husband of twenty years. This is the eleventh year they have joined in this tribute, eleven years since the early death of Taylor. It is the one day of the year June smokes, but one of many when the two of them find themselves drinking too much and lamenting the loss of someone close. There is nothing between them but many years of friendship, death, empty lives, and the Montana outdoors. If this is “everything” in Canty’s world, it’s looking to be a long, unhappy novel. Instead, it is a fine piece of writing with carefully drawn scenes and characters swimming determinedly like bright rainbow trout through the cold tumbling waters of its story.

RL is one of those tough, fifty year old, loner Montana guys who runs an angler’s shop and outfits raft trips for the moneyed tourists. His wife Dawn has left him (twice) as has his old girlfriend Betsy who married a loser up the valley and now has three kids and a recurrence of cancer which will likely kill her. RL’s beloved fly fishing daughter Layla went off to college in Seattle and met a graduate student who broke her heart, and so she is home for the summer brooding and wading the rivers rod in hand. But he doesn’t talk well with her. Only his old friend June can get close enough to Layla to calm her rough waters.

June too has nothing much to show for a life lived too much in her past marriage to Taylor. They put all their energy into rebuilding a falling down small riverside ranch now worth millions. She had their dog Rosco, her only comfort since Taylor died, but when Rosco dies, “she lost everything connecting her to the world…An old dog spindle-shanked and water-eyed. Once they had been sleek and fast, both of them.”

Into her empty life comes Howard, a sort of recovering alcoholic real estate guy who convinces June to sell her property for a couple million and move in with him. She thinks Howard may fill the big hole in her life, but he goes off to Seattle every month to get drunk, and when he’s around, he spends the time telling her how to live. She finally walks away when his unasked for advice comes once too often: “You’ve got to be right even about being wrong. I don’t even know how to screw my life up the right way.”

Layla seeks distraction with Edgar, a young married employee of RL. He is both a good fishing guide and a talented artist. Thrown together in RL’s shop, they begin an affair and she becomes pregnant. But Edgar has a devoted wife, a child, and another on the way – all of whom he won’t leave – and a load of guilt. “He had made his commitments and now was the time to be a man about them. And then, to be a man, fine, a little dead inside but holding on, holding up his end…wasn’t that enough? It ought to be enough. It would have to be enough.”

RL and Betsy reconnect as he helps her through her chemotherapy. He imagines giving her one last happy fling for the both of them. “Mexico: it could have been Morocco, anywhere. Shoulder to shoulder they pored over the possibilities. They didn’t speak of the impossibilities.” But in a resort in Puerto Vallarta Betsy discovers in tears that there is no going forward.

RL takes Betsy home to die surrounded by her children and uninterested husband. Edgar goes back to his family leaving Layla pregnant and lonely in her father’s house. June dumps Howard and also bunks down in RL’s house until she figures out what to do next. They sit down at his kitchen table. “Like poker, RL thinks, the three of them sitting around. Like Indian poker, he thinks, where everybody but you knows what you’ve got.”

While Layla goes out for a walk, June and RL commiserate with each other. “I have certainly made a mess of things, June says. RL considers this and says, Not more than me…She says, This has to stop, you know…He says, I know. But what can we do? I’ve been thinking about this, June says…We take care of each other…We try.” When Layla returns, she says to them “I have made such a mess of things”. Together they realize that as messy as it all is, they have each other to share what troubles are ahead.

In “Everything” Canty goes at all the hardness in the world head on – but he shows that it is manageable if taken in pieces and shared with someone. As Betsy comments, “[It’s] too hard to make sense of things if you have to think about everything.” This is one of those novels whose characters and spare language stay with you long after the sun sets over the Bitterroot.

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