By Ethan Canin
Random House, 458 pages, $27
America America. Terrible title, right? Grandiose and sentimental. (And Elia Kazan got there first.) That’s what I thought, too—but it’s grown on me, and now I see that it’s suitably ambitious for a novel about ambition, suitably redundant for a novel that takes as its twinned themes American capitalism and American politics, and suitably ambiguous (is it a boast or a lament?) for a bittersweet success story about an epic failure. Ethan Canin could hardly wish for higher praise than this: His big, carefully crafted novel earns the right to its name.
On a local level, America America is the story of Corey Sifter, a 16-year-old boy who in the spring of 1971 is hired to work on the estate of the vastly rich and powerful Metarey family. Corey, the only child of a plumber and a doting housewife mother, does well—very well, indeed—and by the end of the summer he’s become the Metareys’ pet project. The father, Liam, offers to pay for his education at an elite prep school; the two daughters, also teenagers, flirt with him; the son, on leave from the army, treats him with gruff brotherly affection. Corey Sifter is about to get a huge leg up in the world.
This fairy-tale upward mobility has national bearing (and resonance for today’s reader), because 1971 is the year in which Liam Metarey decides to throw his money and influence behind the presidential aspirations of Senator Henry Bonwiller (D–N.Y.), a patrician antiwar, civil-rights crusader, "one of the last great liberal leaders of the Senate." Metarey believes that the dashing Bonwiller—not Muskie, not McGovern ("Man’s got the charisma of a turnip")—is the candidate who can dislodge Nixon from the White House in the 1972 elections and end the war in Vietnam.
Because he’s trusted and liked and endlessly willing, young Corey becomes a gofer and sometime chauffeur for the nascent Bonwiller campaign, which is headquartered at the Metarey estate. What he sees and does over the next year—he plays, unwittingly, a small but key role at a time of crisis—will stay with him for the rest of his life.
THE NARRATIVE ACTUALLY BEGINS IN 2006, at the funeral of Senator Bonwiller, who failed to become president, who failed even to win the Democratic nomination. Though The New York Times announced his demise with "an above-the-fold headline on page one and a three-column jump in the obituaries," it’s clear that a whiff of scandal clings to the senator even in death. It’s also clear that the scandal will be the pivot on which the action of the novel turns—it’s the catalyst, the storyteller’s motivation for telling his tale.
Corey is our narrator. Friendly, modest, unhurried and thoughtful, with a necessary dash of cynicism, he looks back at the past from the perspective of his own accomplishments: Now 51, he’s the publisher of a small newspaper ("the last of the local dailies not to have sold to McClatchy or Gannett or Murdoch"), a comfortably bourgeois family man with three daughters, the youngest of whom is now just a little older than he was back when he had his fateful brush with dynastic wealth and presidential politics, back when he belonged to an entirely different socioeconomic stratum.
Mr. Canin’s portrait of Bonwiller, built up gradually from Corey’s brief glimpses and snatches of overheard conversation (a process of accretion, like an impressionist canvas), gives us the illusion of intimacy with a man within reach of the presidency, a deeply flawed and hypocritical politician who nonetheless serves his country and fellow citizens—especially the downtrodden—with energy and conviction. Here’s Corey, musing on Bonwiller’s character: "Vanity is so often considered the essence of someone who is stained with it, but I think now … that it’s actually a secondary quality, more on the order of wistfulness or mirth … I’ve seen it more than once yoked to an exceptional empathy, for example—a paradox, perhaps, but the way I think it was in the Senator’s particular case."
Bonwiller grows and changes over the course of the novel, especially after he wins a string of primaries, so that when the scandal breaks, we feel we can see all the way around him, both the idealism and the ruthlessness, though the virtues are now tainted, the shortcomings magnified. (The scandal, as you might have guessed, is a tawdry variant on Chappaquiddick, with a girl named JoEllen Charney in the role of Mary Jo Kopechne.)
In some ways Bonwiller is the public face—a caricature, really—of Liam Metarey, Corey’s benefactor and Bonwiller’s strategist. A complex, powerfully attractive character, a visionary with a prodigious mechanical aptitude (he can fix a tractor while quoting Isaiah Berlin), Metarey is the son of a Scottish-born robber baron who made his money in coal and railroads. Though he enjoys the fruits of his inherited fortune, Liam feels compelled to atone for his father’s rapacity by embracing the cause of social justice, by planning for the future of his community and his country. Corey worships him—and that devotion and trust implicate him in terrible events.
MR. CANIN, AUTHOR OF TWO COLLECTIONS of stories and three previous novels, flexes his considerable talent with prose snapshots of the political scene in 1972: Nixon in China watching ping-pong in Beijing with Chou En-lai; Edmund Muskie standing on the bed of a truck in Manchester, N.H., in the heavy snow, crying on national television.
But even though the book is always angling for larger significance, for a claim to its redundant title, the very best parts are intimate and emotional, domestic scenes of grief or budding love or family banter. When Mr. Canin draws a bead on a widower’s sorrow, it’s wrenchingly effective. A romantic encounter between Corey and his future wife on a terrace on the Upper West Side is so subtly presented that it’s difficult to pin down how the emotional current ever registers with the reader—but I promise you it does.
America America is an old-fashioned character-driven yarn, conventional for the most part, and without a trace of self-consciously literary writing. It resembles, naturally, its narrator: Intelligent, at times surprisingly insightful, but not brilliant or showy; cautious and inclined to make a fetish of decency, but never self-righteous. Honesty is the keynote, even if some relevant facts, such as the name of Corey’s wife, are withheld for the sake of suspense, even if loyalty sometimes demands that lies be told.
Honesty obliges Corey (with Ethan Canin hovering behind him) to make the remark that could serve as the Metarey family motto—and the motto of the richest nation in the world: "[I]t struck me again … how diligently privilege had to work to remain oblivious to its cost."
Adam Begley is editor of the Observer Review of Books. He can be reached a email@example.com.