There's still a decade to go before I can enjoy a respectable midlife crisis. But everyone is entitled to a vicarious meltdown every now and then, and Kevin Canty's Nine Below Zero provides a textbook model: Its two fast-approaching-40 protagonists, Justine and Marvin, find each other in Montana in the midst of sundry disasters and assorted dysfunctions. When we first meet the pair, Justine is leaving her art professor husband to stay with her dying grandfather Henry. Marvin, meanwhile, is building atrocious spec homes in the wilderness. Though not typically prescribed as an aphrodisiac, these trying scenarios seemingly put the couple in the mood, and an affair develops. In reality, though, they're both too bitter for the sex to be all that great.
This kind of realistic detail is relentless throughout Canty's prose, and his story provides no respite in sentimentality or hope. (At least the unhappy lovers in Canty's first novel, Into the Great Wide Open, were teenagers, young enough to heal and have a slew of partners in the future.) Justine never has recovered, and probably never will, from the death of her 4-year-old son. Her depression, in turn, has transformed her otherwise kind husband into a meddling amateur psychotherapist. Few marriages will survive that. Yet Justine is not necessarily portrayed as a victim; she regularly berates her own selfish and self-absorbed ways. And her decision to take care of her grandfather has less to do with filial piety than with a desire to start over.
According to Canty, the rich and white Justine is a trophy girl of sorts, which appeals greatly to the working-class, half-American Indian Marvin. (This interracial tryst is portrayed as a bit risqué--though whether it really is remains for the reader to determine.) Regrettably--and this is filled with regret--Justine cannot necessarily make Marvin feel like a new man: He already has an insane ex-wife and a daughter somewhere in California, and a girlfriend in town. Mostly, the relationship affords him the chance to remember enough truisms to make the Buddha jealous: "Judgment is the enemy of love," he often thinks. He hates feeling like a role player in a skit that's been played out before--but, of course, he is. The truth is, they both sound a little too tired for this kind of drama.
Depressing, no? The novel's brisk pace pushes the reader toward the finish, but the conclusion leaves one feeling cheated. During the first half of the novel, these characters had, at the very least, a potential for happiness, and each chapter felt like a short story unto itself, with every ending a cliffhanger. By book's end, the chapters seem tiresome, and the narrative twists too outrageous and implausible to be explained away simply. Word to Canty: It's not sporting to kill off a major character in a sentence, nor to drive someone out of state in order to advance the plot. Don't these people have enough to worry about already?