by Sheri Boggs

It's not surprising that writer Kevin Canty counts the late Raymond Carver as one of his strongest literary influences. Both have a gift for writing mesmerizing short fiction, the sudden quick twist that lets you know you're hooked -- helpless -- in the quietly reeling denouement of the story. Both write of plain, everyday things, of finding grace in the banal. And both are fascinated by the many permutations of love.

"Carver's really a hero of mine, obviously," admits Canty, who reads from his new collection Honeymoon and Other Stories at Auntie's on Friday. "For about five years when I was first starting to write, I just sat around writing really bad, imitation Raymond Carver. The thing about Carver is he would write these beautiful stories where nothing seemed to happen, and then you get to the end of the story and really find yourself moved. I was writing stories where nothing seemed to happen, and at the end, nothing had happened."

That's no longer the case in Canty's fiction these days. His stories are taut, bittersweet and ultimately humane. His characters often find themselves in situations where they ought to know better but nevertheless press on -- heartache be damned. In "Aquarium," a woman in her 30s tries not to seduce her much younger nephew. In "Carolina Beach," a man flinches from falling in love with a dying woman. And in "Tokyo, My Love," a movie monster anticipates violent reunion with its beloved city.

"Passion can be a risky kind of force," he says, "for instance, the story 'Aquarium.' There's no way it can end well. In certain respects, it doesn't end well. And yet, I have this kind of admiration for characters who are willing to just plunge ahead rather than play it safe."

Canty, who has also written two novels, the screenplay for the film Rounders and a first short story collection, didn't initially plan to flesh out a collection of what turned out to be unconventional love stories.

"I didn't set out to write love stories. The stories sort of accumulated one by one, and without me realizing it, this theme was being carried all the way through," he says. "I looked back and saw what was there and I liked that; I liked the sense of finding a theme -- not that you always have to as a short story writer -- and working through it."

In his previous book Nine Below Zero, Canty explored the Montana mindset... what it is to live and work in a state that is as much a state of mind as it is a geographical place.

"Nine Below Zero was a deliberate attempt to talk about the West, about Montana. I've lived in Oregon, I've lived all over the Northwest in addition to living all over the country, and I've watched the character of the place slowly being diluted by cable TV and McDonald's and all these kind of homogenized elements," says Canty. "And in that there are competing mythologies of the West, so it was a real attempt to wrestle with those ideas."

At the same time, Canty, who teaches at the University of Montana in Missoula, doesn't necessarily wish to be identified as a "Montana writer."

"This is not in any way to belittle those writers we're talking about -- Rick Bass, Jim Welch, William Kittredge -- because they're all incredible writers. But I don't need to be or want to be what I would call a hyphenated writer."

Of Honeymoon and Other Stories, the Los Angeles Times said, "...these are lean, powerful stories, which is not to say they are lacking in tenderness. Canty knows how to hurt us the way Flannery O'Connor did." While the comparison to O'Connor is an apt one indeed, what's especially intriguing is the "hurt," the echoes of a shared vulnerability that seem to spill out of Canty's stories. His style is tight, beautiful in its economy and yet he unerringly delivers us to those places we'd rather not go.

"The best fiction, or the fiction that I like the best, are the ones that make visible what was there in the air before but not recognized," he says. "Almost in the way that a photographer takes the picture, something fleeting is suddenly captured and framed where you can see it.

"It's a lot to ask from a short story, but the best of them do it," he adds. "They go into the difficulty and the anxiety and the kinds of things that keep you up at three in the morning."

Kevin Canty reads from Honeymoon and Other Stories at Auntie's, 402 W. Main, on Friday, May 25, at 7:30 pm. Call: 838-0206.

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