Everyone’s at turning points under the Big Sky

By Kevin O’Kelly
July 20, 2010

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Every July 5, RL and June go to the banks of a Montana river with a bottle of whiskey to remember Taylor. Taylor was RL’s oldest friend and June’s husband. He’s been dead 11 years. And in an uncharacteristically dramatic gesture, June stops drinking, pours the scotch into the river, and declares this trip to be the last: “I’m nobody’s widow anymore.’’

While June resolves to put the past behind her, RL undertakes an act of love that mentally pulls him between past and present. Betsy, an ex-girlfriend from college, needs chemotherapy, and RL’s house is much closer to the hospital than her farm. He puts her up while she undergoes treatment. She’s married with kids but that doesn’t stop RL from thinking he could fall in love again.

Meanwhile RL’s daughter Layla, a college freshman, is in love with a graduate student incapable of fidelity. And as she nurses her broken heart through the summer, she finds herself falling into the arms of someone even more unsuitable.

Kevin Canty’s “Everything’’ is about people at turning points in their lives who think they don’t have any good choices, but who end up going forward anyway for the simple reason that they must.

Canty’s prose is spare but evocative: Ten of his words do more to convey the yearnings and pangs of his characters than other writers could achieve in 20. In a halting conversation between RL and Betsy that culminates in her saying, “I don’t think I’ve ever been in love,’’ Canty takes you to the heart of mingled bitterness and acceptance. When June, reflecting on what the years ahead could bring, thinks, “She was a brave person when she had to be . . . she could endure. She could suffer. Not a great talent to have. She would rather be able to sing,’’ you can feel her sadness and resignation even while you laugh.

It’s not just the characters’ emotions that you feel when you read this book. Canty’s love of the Montana countryside is almost palpable, whether he’s describing the glorious autumnal dying of a forest or the sparkling beauty of a lake on one of the last days of summer. And his descriptions of rural homes and farmsteads, with their fallen fences and broken-down trucks on the edge of the amazing expanse of the Big Sky Country wilderness, provide an apt metaphor for what often happens when human intentions are brought up against the brute reality of events.

And that love of Montana is evident in Canty’s characters as well. This is very much a novel of the West. People all over the world face the problems and dilemmas that confront RL, Layla, June, and Betsy, but this novel couldn’t be set in North Carolina or Illinois. These people would be different characters, and “Everything’’ another book.

As wonderful as this novel is, there are three artistic missteps that mar its beauty. Almost halfway through, Canty devotes a brief chapter to one character we never meet again. In the last quarter of the book, an even briefer chapter takes us directly into the mind of a character we glimpsed intermittently through Layla’s memories at the novel’s beginning. Perhaps there’s some purpose for these emotional snapshots that I’m missing, but I found them disruptive, and I expect other readers will as well.

And finally, one character is dispensed with in the final chapter in a way that I just can’t buy. But I’ll let you find out what it is for yourself: Because in spite of my complaints, this book is well worth staying with to the end.

Kevin O’Kelly can be reached at


Nan A. Talese, 304 pp., $25.95