Analysis of Ethan Canin’s The Year of Getting to Know Us

“The Year of Getting to Know Us” is a story of desperation on many levels that demonstrate that Ethan Canin is able to draw characters that move readers through emotion. The story was originally published in 1987 in Atlantic Monthly and then appeared in 1988 in Canin’s debut collection, Emperor of the Air: Stories, which also won a Houghton Mifflin Literary Fellowship. Twenty years later, the story’s characters and events withstood the test of time and proved to be as substantial today as on the day they first appeared.

Leonard and his wife, Anne, visit his father, Max, who is on his deathbed. The visit renews memories for Leonard and, after his father passes, forces Leonard to examine similarities between his father’s life and his own. Through flashback, readers are led through Leonard’s tumultuous teenage years, when he was arrested and was constantly in trouble at school. His mother believed that fixing the relationship between Leonard and his father would solve the problems Leonard was having. He recalls what his mother declared “the year of getting to know us,” in which the divide between a teenage Leonard and Max was to be mended, and the relationship between Max and Leonard’s mother was to be strengthened. “ ‘you can take Lenny with you to play golf . . . and, as preparation for our trip,’ my mother said, ‘can you take him on your Sunday rides?’ ” (199). When Max does not allow Leonard along on his Sunday trips in the Lincoln Continental, Leonard hides in the trunk and discovers that his father is having an affair. At the time of his father’s death, he connects this recollection with his recent discovery of Anne’s infidelity. He questions whether he has become a version of his father, a thought that resonates with his father’s words from his youth, “ ‘You don’t have to get to know me,’ he said, ‘because one day you’re going to grow up and then you’re going to be me’ ” (207).

Leonard’s “quiet desperation” is evident to readers, manifesting itself in his inability to feel and show the emotions he believes he should at certain times in his life. When his father dies, rather than surrounding himself with family and loved ones, he leaves in the middle of the night and drives to a high school athletic fi eld. “I thought, This is the night your father has passed. I looked up at the lightening sky. I said it, ‘This is the night your father has passed,’ but I didn’t feel what I thought I would. Just the wind on my throat, the chill of the morning” (206).

Earlier, when he discovered his wife was having an affair, he similarly isolated himself by avoiding confrontation with her and her lover when he caught them together in a restaurant: “I could see that under the table they were holding hands. His back was to me, and I noticed that it was broad, as mine is not. I remember thinking that she probably liked this broadness. Other than that, though, I didn’t feel very much. I ordered another cup of coffee just to hear myself talk, but my voice wasn’t quavering or fearful. When the waitress left, I took out a napkin and wrote on it, ‘You are a forty-year-old man with no children and your wife is having an affair.’ Then I put some money on the table and left the restaurant” (199).

Leonard’s struggle to feel what he sees as normal emotion is evident, and it is not a far reach for readers to conclude that his paralysis stems from a father who, while physically present throughout Leonard’s upbringing, was emotionally absent. The closest he is able to come to connecting with his emotions is an indirect reference to an intern at the hospital. “Tell me the truth. . . . The truth about my father” (203).

Leonard’s drive to the high school seems to act as a catalyst, and though the story concludes in flashback, readers can ascertain that Leonard has reconciled some of the troubling aspects of his life and accepted some of the similarities he has to his father. He understands, as well, that the desperation he feels is probably the same as his father felt, bringing them together in a very real way that they never shared during his father’s lifetime.

On his own writing, Canin says, “I wanted to write stories where small things would take on huge significance” (Kaufman A12). In “The Year of Getting to Know Us” innocent events, a son sneaking into the trunk of his father’s car and, later in life, seeing his wife’s car parked in a Denny’s parking lot, become of utmost importance in the life of the narrator, Leonard. Canin’s careful attention to detail, character, and emotion marks him as a strong writer in the critical literary fiction tradition.

Brandmark, Wendy. “Awful Daring.” New Statesman & Society, no. 292 (March 4, 1994): 40.
Canin, Ethan. “The Year of Getting to Know Us.” In The Scribner Anthology of Contemporary Short Fiction, edited by Lex Williford and Michael Martone. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1999.
Kaufman, Joanne. “Doctor, Author, Hunk All Rolled into One.” Wall Street Journal 11 March 1994, p. A12.

Categories: Literature, Short Story

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