The short story titled "Emperor of the Air", by Ethan Canin is a very easy to understand narration. It is puzzling to think that such a young writer would have such great insight into the world of an older man, but he most definitely does and it is portrayed through the eyes of the narrator. But the story isn't about just the narrator, it is really about the differences between the narrator and Mr. Pike, the younger, healthier, next door neighbor.
The Narrator experiences a heart attack that slows him down considerably. The Narrator is married and thinks about his wife Vera, who is nearly his age, but because she still has her health she has gone off for several weeks to hike the Appalachian Trail and gets to enjoy many other activities that he can't partake in. The fact that the Narrator is at home quite a bit gives him time to dwell on subjects that he might not have given so much attention to if he still had his health.
There is 250 year old elm tree that sits in the narrators front yard and it has become infested with insects. The tree is a representation of the Narrator because it is old and in danger of dying because of the infestation of insects. This is a lot like the Narrator whose health took a dive after his heart attack and is also in danger of dying if he allows his heart to race from strenuous activities. Mr. Pike wants to cut the tree down and says to the Narrator, "It's a shame, but I'll be frank: there's other trees on this block. I've got my own elms to think of." It doesn't seem like Mr. Pike wants to cut the tree down because he dislikes the Narrator but rather because he genuinely doesn't want the other trees to become infested with the insects.
At this point in the story we see the Narrator start to focus on the life of Mr. Pike and he seems to enjoy pointing out all of his flaws. In the story the Narrator describes Mr. Pike as a "thick and unpleasant man." He also says that "Mr. Pike is a poor craftsman, a man who values money over quality." The Narrator describes Mr. Pike as a poor craftsman because he owns part of a construction company and builds prefabricated houses. The difference in the two characters seems more to due with the times than with where they grew up or where they were born. Because the Narrator is an elderly man he is probably used to custom homes where only the finest quality products were used. If the Narrator were alive today he'd probably have another heart attack because the business of building homes has only become more streamlined and I'm certain that the builders don't always use the finest products.
The Narrator stays awake at night trying to think of ways to prevent the cutting down of his beloved 250 year old elm tree. He calls the nursery to find out if the insects will kill the tree and when he is told that it's not certain that the insects will kill the tree that seems to give him some hope. The next day when Mr. Pike goes over the Narrators house to discuss the tree they quarrel over whether or not the tree could possibly fall and land on Mr. Pikes' house. At this point in the story the Narrator will say just about anything possible to keep his elm from being cut down when the truth is that he doesn't want the elm cut down because it's a representation of himself. A sick and elderly man whom wishes he were younger and more vibrant just like Mr. Pike is.
It's amazing at the lengths that the Narrator will go to, to try and keep his aging elm alive. While thinking to himself the Narrator says, "If Mr. Pike's trees were infested, they would still more than likely live, and he would no longer want mine chopped down." This is when the Narrator goes to the elm and collects a jar full of insects to bring over to Mr. Pikes' younger elms so that they to will become infested. The Narrator doesn't succeed in his mission to infest the neighbors' younger elms. Even though it seems like his mission is interrupted when Mr. Pike and his son wander into the back yard, the underlying truth is that the Narrator didn't want to do it any ways. It was just the Narrator giving himself a reason to not go through with it.
As the Narrator walked home that night, from Mr. Pikes' back yard he looked through one of Mr. Pikes' windows and saw him and his son sitting on the couch together, watching television. Mr. Pike was everything that the Narrator wanted to be, young and strong and he had a son at home that he could spend time with. That night after the Narrator got home he emptied his jar of insects and thought of asking his wife for a child even thought he knew that at his age it was not possible.
"Emperor Of The Air" is not a book about an aging elm, rather it is the story of one mans struggle with the aging process. It just so happens that his next store neighbor has much of what he wishes he had, such as his youth. This story left me wondering if this is how all elderly people start to feel at some point in their lives.