EMPEROR OF THE AIR

By Ethan Canin

Houghton Mifflin. 179 pp. $15.95

For this slender volume of short stories, Ethan Canin, a 27-year-old student at Harvard Medical School, has been awarded a Houghton Mifflin Literary Fellowship: an honor bestowed irregularly by the Boston publisher to a notable first work of fiction. The prize, which consists of a generous cash award and publication of the work by Houghton Mifflin, has gone to a number of writers who went on to distinguished careers, among them Robert Penn Warren, Elizabeth Bishop, Philip Roth and Ellen Douglas. On the evidence of "Emperor of the Air," Canin has the talent to circulate in such company.

The phrase "auspicious debut" has for so long been used so casually and frequently by reviewers that it no longer means anything; this is a pity, for Canin's debut is indeed auspicious. Though the nine stories in "Emperor of the Air" are uneven, and though their sameness of voice has a somewhat numbing effect, these slight and occasional shortcomings are more than compensated for by the sureness of Canin's prose and the maturity of his intelligence; in a culture that encourages the perpetuation of adolescence well into one's third decade, he is that increasingly rare young person whose outlook on life is genuinely adult.

This is reflected in two of the collection's most successful stories, "Emperor of the Air" and "We Are Nighttime Travelers." Each is narrated by a man in his late sixties, who has come to a moment of quiet but intense crisis. In the first, the narrator, a teacher of biology and astronomy, is being pestered by his neighbor, a man whom he does not like, to cut down a 200-year-old elm that is infested with insects. "The elm was ancient and exquisite: we could not let it die," he tells himself, and maps out retaliation against his enemy. But then he sees the man in a moment of private affection with his son and undergoes an epiphany:

"I wanted to run, or kick a ball, or shout a soliloquy into the night ... How could one not hope here? At three weeks the human embryo has gill arches on its neck, like a fish; at six weeks, amphibians' webs still connect its blunt fingers. Miracles. This is true everywhere in nature. The evolution of five-hundred million years is mimicked in each gestation: birds that in the eggs look like fish; fish that emerge like their spineless, leaflike ancestors. What it is to study life! Anybody who had seen a cell divide could have invented religion."

A miracle of a different sort occurs in "We Are Nighttime Travelers," but it is a miracle all the same. Frank and Francine have been married 46 years, "and I would be a bamboozler to say that I have loved her for more than half of these." In retirement they are apart; she stays in the house, he flees it so as to be alone. A salesman all his life, he has unexpectedly discovered poetry: "It's made me melancholy in old age, sad when if I'd stuck with motor homes and the National League standings I don't think I would have been rooting around in regret and doubt at this point." Yet the poetry connects him to the old lover within himself, and in the story's lovely conclusion he and Francine find each other once again.

If these are perhaps the two most successful stories in the collection, the others are not much less accomplished. Like most young male writers, Canin is strongly interested in relationships between fathers and sons, but unlike most such writers, he does not see these relationships in simplistic or self-pitying terms. In "The Year of Getting to Know Us" an aloof father resists his wife's effort to bring the family closer together; "You don't have to get to know me," he tells his 16-year-old son, "because one day you're going to grow up and then you're going to be me" -- an observation of telling acuity, but one it is not given to many young writers to understand.

Over and again, Canin produces similar evidence of unusual maturity; several stories, for example, are about how rapidly life proceeds -- "no man makes truly proper use of his time" -- and yet how "we learn so slowly" the lessons it teaches. He knows too that we are "alone in the world" and that it is terribly hard to maintain one's decency when one's psychological territory is encroached upon.

Where he acquired this knowledge, though, is a mystery. His biography includes a fat list of writing prizes and fellowships, but these are most unlikely to have been educational in any constructive sense. He also "recently appeared at the Writer Nights series at Lincoln Center in New York, where he read with Sue Miller and Robert Stone," which strikes me as rather less of a distinction than his publisher fancies it to be. No, it must be medical school, where in studying the health of the body he seems to have discovered much about the condition of the heart. Perhaps it is there, rather than the writing schools, that we should be sending the writers of the future.