Review: ‘A Doubter’s Almanac’ by Ethan Canin

A Doubter’s Almanac. Ethan Canin. Random. 551 pages. $28.
A Doubter’s Almanac. Ethan Canin. Random. 551 pages. $28.

In his last novel, the terrific America America, Ethan Canin’s protagonist learned some hard-won lessons: “[T]hat love for our children is what sustains us; that people are not what they seem; that those we hate bear some wound equal to our own; that power is desperation’s salve, and that this fact as much as any is what dooms and dooms us.”

Canin’s latest novel seems to argue against most of these homilies. According to A Doubter’s Almanac — an often ugly and unflinching gaze into the darker side of family dynamics — love for our offspring isn’t enough to inspire us. Most of us are hideously transparent in our naked desires, and other people’s wounds aren’t as dire as our own, and even if they were, we wouldn’t really care. We may, however, still be doomed, not by power but by our inability to transcend our own weaknesses.

A Doubter’s Almanac is Canin’s first novel in eight years, and it’s a powerful, insightful examination of the nature of genius, ego and obsession. A faculty member at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop who is also the author of The Palace Thief, For Kings and Planets and Carry Me Across the Water, Canin uses these concepts to explore how they shape a malignant family relationship.

The novel is also about math — daunting, terrifying, theoretical math (Canin has done a tremendous amount of research for this book, but he never lets all he has learned overwhelm his fluid, graceful prose). We’re talking the sort of math that earns prize consideration and leaves a lasting legacy for the mind able to tame it.

Milo Andret, the gifted mathematician at the center of this story, has that sort of unique mind. Growing up in northern Michigan in the 1950s, he makes a name for himself at Berkeley in the 1970s: “He was an eccentric. A savant from the woods. Isaac Newton in North Oakland.”

When Milo comes across an unsolved problem in a journal, he discovers his quest: solving the Malosz conjecture. Canin explains it so easily a layman can follow, if not solve it: “In the early part of the century, Kamil Malosz had written a letter to a friend wondering whether certain systems of equations might have solutions in complex projective spaces; and over the years the question had evolved into a deeper and deeper problem. No mathematician had ever been able to find a solution.”

Milo devotes himself to finding that solution. He pores over journals to identify his rivals: “A professor in Kyoto. A graduate student at McGill in Canada. An amateur topologist in Kiev. None of their papers mentioned the Malosz conjecture specifically, but he could see what they were doing. They were positioning themselves around its edges.”

But numbers and theorems aren’t Milo’s only obsession. He meets the bright, adventurous Cle Wells in a Berkeley library and singlemindedly pursues her. They become lovers, but Cle’s eventual turn to Earl Biettermann, a poet and fellow mathematician — and, in Milo’s eyes, a flesh-and-blood rival — sets Milo on a lifetime course of careless, cruel womanizing, prodigious drinking and occasional violence. Gradually, and then suddenly, Canin reveals Milo as a selfish, brutish monster poisoned by his own potential and warped by alcoholism.

The second half of the book is told from the point of view of Hans, Milo’s grown son. Hans also possesses a startling aptitude for math (and, unfortunately for him, an aptitude for substance abuse). But after years of negotiating his father’s lies, whims and rages, he has a better understanding of his own weaknesses and more resolve to pull himself together.

Like his mother, Hans is also more forgiving of his father than is entirely palatable: “I was forced to rethink many of the things I’d believed about him,” he says. “Nobody likes to do that. Especially if you’ve nursed a grievance of mistreatment for a good portion of your life. But this is part of why I tell this story — to understand the truth about him, including the idea that he can’t entirely be blamed for what he did to us, and for what he did to himself, and for what happened to him.”

Only a confident writer can allow a viscerally unpleasant character like Milo Andret to dominate a 500-plus page novel — and then let him off the hook for his appalling behavior. The second half of the book feels a bit long, but Canin is expertly mirroring the alternately agonizing and dull, drawn-out days that pass as a big, vibrant life winds down. A Doubter’s Almanac ends on a surprisingly upbeat note of forgiveness, which feels slightly artificial at first. But think about it: Sometimes we do earn a respite we don’t deserve. Sometimes, someone solves the problem for us.

Connie Ogle is the Miami Herald’s book editor.