She never becomes much more than a cipher for Winslow's waning desires and advancing age-- part muse, part male fantasy, but very little character.
When we first meet the poet Richard Winslow, he's sitting alone in a ratty bar in Portland studiously trying to get drunk. As the protagonist of Kevin Canty's fourth novel, Winslow in Love, he has a host of problems to drown: his marriage is dissolving, he's unemployed, and he hasn't written anything worth reading in a year and a half. At the very least he keeps up his appearance: "Winslow himself was fat and bald and drunk but at least he was clean, he was scrupulous about that." Salvation quickly comes in the form of a writer-in-residency at an unnamed university in Montana, where he will teach poetry -- namely Rilke's Elegies -- for one semester.
These are our first impressions of Winslow, but he feels immediately familiar: we have met him before in a slew of novels about spiritually lost, casually self-destructive, almost always male writers and academics. A few recent examples come readily to mind: Chuck Kinder's dreadful Honeymooners, Michael Chabon's Wonder Boys (reportedly based on Kinder), Denis Johnson's The Name of the World, and the Chip Lambert sections of Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections. There are scores more, too many to list. Just as in those novels, Winslow in Love must have a tempting student body-namely, an undergrad femme fatale, not beautiful but eccentric and teasingly available sexually. In Winslow in Love, that role belongs to Erika Jones, an angry and dangerously emaciated would-be poet who bears no small resemblance to Melissa Paquette in The Corrections. She is "the skinny girl, with so many piercings she looked like a change purse jangling. She was pale and blonde and wolfish, wolf eyes, blue and bright." Erika, of course, is the best writer in the class, and Winslow falls for her hard, despite his better judgment and despite his awareness of the trap, if not of the cliché. Worse, she never becomes much more than a cipher for Winslow's waning desires and advancing age-- part muse, part male fantasy, but very little character.
Winslow in Love doesn't fare well in these comparisons to previous works, perhaps because it is too modest a novel for its immodest ambitions. In addition to satirizing academic life for the thousandth time (and very tamely as well), Canty delves into the twin mysteries of art and creativity: what purpose does art -- specifically poetry, which Winslow admits is a dead language -- serve to society, and from what spring does inspiration flow? Canty works hard to answer these questions, but he comes up helplessly short not because these questions are essentially insoluble, but because this novel about poetry is fatally unpoetic.
Occasionally, Canty evokes the writing-centered life with a revelatory knowingness: Winslow reflects on "the way the day would center itself around the blank piece of paper. Waiting to see what would happen, how we would fill it up. And even if the words had stopped coming, there was always the waiting. The thing he was: waiting." He's waiting for "that little whisper, that thing that's left over when you take all the things out of the poem that you can accurately name." Much of Winslow in Love takes place on the page, which becomes, in this case, problematic. Canty includes numerous scenes of Winslow hard at work, alone his apartment either reading Elegies or trying to shape a poem, but he neglects to include any of these works, whether finished or scrapped, in the novel. Instead, we get vague descriptions and repeated assurances that Winslow knows when it is and isn't working. This absence of verse violates the cardinal rule of all fiction workshops: show, don't tell.
Instead, Canty himself attempts to show the world as seen through Winslow's eyes and filtered through his creative mind. This technique results in prose that is alternately inspired and embarrassing, as when Winslow gracelessly describes his penis as a "limp, one-eyed blind fish," which draws a ridiculously straight line to his ultramasculine flyfishing hobby. This sort of easy connection occurs throughout Winslow's story and exposes the scaffolding of meaning and metaphor. For instance, on a road trip with Erika, Winslow lounges in a hotel pool, which takes on the predicable Freudian meanings as Winslow considers "the child inside him and his own death approaching." In case readers miss the return-to-the-womb language, he underscores it even further by referring to the water as "the amniotic float."
Winslow in Love grouses about the fate of poetry in an unpoetic world and suggests that it is both a shield against mortality and the opposite of society, but Canty develops neither of these ideas thoroughly or satisfactorily. Even though Winslow keeps fighting until the clumsily contrived finale, Canty writes that "the enterprise of poetry had defeated him entirely." That seems truer of the novelist than the character.