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WHEN A RAMBLIN' MAN LOVES A WOMAN

NINE BELOW ZERO:
A Novel
By Kevin Canty
Doubleday
371 pages, $23.95

Among American writers, drift has long had a certain cachet. Huck Finn out on that raft, Ishmael on the Pequod, Jack Kerouac behind the wheel and Holden Caulfield on the ramble don't exactly know where they were going, but we cheer them along anyway. Lighting out for the territories, the open road, the open sea -- what does it matter so long as you are lighting out?

The ramblin' man of country music is, after all, a real American type, driftin' along with the tumblin' tumbleweed, going with the flow. The drifters in "Nine Below Zero" are Marvin Deernose, a half-Indian construction worker in Rivulet, Mont., and Justine Gallego, granddaughter of a former U.S. senator, who is summoned back to Montana to look after her grandfather after he has suffered a stroke while driving.

It was Deernose who discovered Sen. Neihart's wrecked Cadillac and was there when the old man awoke to find himself blind. Marvin and Justine quickly meet to find in each other enticing and dangerous reflections: careening souls who have never found the inner peace to stay in one place very long. He is a recovered drug addict, a footloose Indian ignorant of his tribal heritage, whose return from the Southwest to Rivulet has no particular meaning to it.

He isn't in search of "roots," just a slightly less alienated existence. She is an alcoholic with undefined nervous disorders and is in mourning for a son who died at age 4. Her husband, Neil, is an art teacher from whom she is emotionally disconnected. How's that for authentic Americana?

You could almost frame these characters and hang them up as a sampler: Homeless-Sweet-Homeless. We've seen it all before. The neurotic, the addict, the spiritual alien are virtually the hero/heroines of our time, when, at least to the novelist, even the self-mutilated life is preferable to nine-to-fiving it in Silicon Valley. Thus his restlessness doesn't appear to us to be entirely a failure of nerve. To be unwell, to be adrift, to be uncertain of what to do when not driving nails is a negative kind of resistance. But it makes Marvin easy pickins for the senator's granddaughter, who has driven all the way from her unhappy home in Portland to peek in on old Granddad in his rocker, and in the bargain to go off her own rocker for a spell, off, that is, her mood-stabilizing medicine.

Her medicine and her grief have damaged her emotionally and sexually, and her husband, a prudent, reasonable and decent man who puts up with a lot of backwash, gives her no physical pleasure. Childless and restless at 38, she wants a walk on the wild side. A rancher's daughter, she's out to rope herself an Indian.

Isn't this just dime-a-dozen rural despair that we have come to take for granted as heartland literature, which almost never gives us images of success except those we can jeer at? Why pick out Kevin Canty's version of back-country flotsam, when going down the tubes is virtually all that our literature is about anymore?

For one thing, I think, it is the cold vision that sets his writing apart here. The book's title, "Nine Below Zero," doesn't refer to just the ambient temperature of this Big Sky Christmas pageant; it describes also the author's point of view, which is rimmed in frost.

And he can write. Something in this novel calls to mind Robert Stone's hard-boiled celebrations of the dog-eat-dog life in novels like "A Flag for Sunrise" and "Children of Light." Canty endows his characters with Stone-like perceptual equipment: leopards' eyes, bats' ears, larval souls. In Marvin Deernose we have an Indian Leopold Bloom, awash in interior monologues that are normally confused, alienated, marinated in bile, and yet rich in what he calls "little dust bunnies of fact, opinion, image." Of course, such a man is going to press his doomed-from-the-start affair with Justine. To the outsider bristling with an outsider's resentments, this danger gives his drifter's life a moment of significance. Like a Robert Stone novel, Canty's moves toward mayhem, but because it has a social point -- cross class boundaries at your own peril -- it is less metaphysical, and lessons are taught without much blood being spilled. The injuries Marvin suffers for tumbling a senator's granddaughter are nothing the paramedics can't patch up, which marks Canty as a realist.

Another of the literary heirs of Raymond Carver (which puts him in company with the likes of Richard Ford, Richard Bausch, Andre Dubus, Russell Banks, Thom Jones, Harry Crews, Jim Harrison and Rick Bass), Canty is a new voice on the block, who is still mastering the medium of "guy" writing: the precise, astringent prose that is heavy with just the right amount of repressed anger and layered irony. "Nine Below Zero" is a novel of sharp writing, wicked perception, mild heartbreak and tolerable disaster, from a writer whose voice has the desolate pungency of Montana itself.

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