In the beginning of Ethan Canin’s novel America America, the country is mired in an unpopular, seemingly futile war, the collective faith in the President—in this case Richard Nixon—has waned, and an under-the-radar, liberal senator strives for the democratic nomination to restore faith and aplomb in the United States.
Does this sound vaguely familiar?
What’s most impressive about the parallels between the book and our current tumult is that it was published in June, 2008, before the Democratic Convention – let alone the general election. Here, though, is where most of the similarities fall off and America America takes on a life of its own.
Canin’s novel’s focus on Corey Sifter functions as a frame story, the adult Corey reflecting back and commenting on his experiences as a teenager. This device serves the novel well, as it allows the narrative to have two tines: the reader privy to the main heft of the book, Corey’s teenage years; but we also see Corey as an adult, a successful reporter, husband and father of three grown daughters. Corey’s contemplations, his ability to have some semblance of perspective about his system of teenage experiences, let the reader get to know him on independent planes.
The son of working class parents, he is taken under the wing of Liam Metarey, local tycoon who owns most of their small town in western New York. Corey performs odd jobs around the Metarey estate and is infatuated with the Metarey’s daughters, Clara and Christina, and ends up marrying the former.
One of the things that remains opaque throughout the novel is Liam Metarey’s affinity for Corey, be it paying him ample money for simple jobs, inviting him to fly in the family airplane, discussing politics with him, or “greasing the wheels” so Corey can attend a prestigious high school (on Metarey’s dime). But I appreciated not knowing Metarey’s precise motives: the two share a kindred bond, and sometimes in life that’s as much explanation as we get. It’s successful here because Canin so convincingly relays their interchanges, conveying the inherent respect between them. Great writers not only know which questions to explicate, but which to let percolate and thrum in the reader’s mind.
The plot really revs up once Metarey decides to try and help Senator Henry Bonwiller run for the Democratic nomination in the 1972 election. Canin presents Bonwiller as a mysterious man, an alcoholic Lothario who speaks to Corey in laconic bits of information. Corey is given the task of driving the senator around the area when his personal driver is indisposed. Though Bonwiller never really confides in Corey, the boy hears enough conversations to piece together his own version of who Bonwiller is. America America is as much about the power of memory, the way in which we freeze people, almost manufacture their characters through reminiscence, as it is about a thwarted attempt at the White House. Bonwiller places second in the Iowa caucus, much higher than anyone had anticipated. Morale around the Metarey estate is high. But in one night everything changes: Bonwiller, in the car with a young woman with whom he is having an affair, has an accident. The precise details are never laid out for the reader but left to waft through inference and innuendo.
Later, as a father and newspaperman, Corey’s reflections on his teenage years answer a lot of questions that the reader struggles with. He has a high school intern, Trieste, working with him at the paper; her questions about the past—the Metareys, Senator Bonwiller, the campaign minutia, the car accident – serve as proxy for the reader’s own questions. In a sense, Trieste becomes the skeptical balance to Corey, whose loyalty to Metarey, and marriage to his daughter, renders him not fully reliable as the teller of the story.
Canin’s prose is clean, almost always well executed; he’s a master of grounding a reader in space-time. At times, his imagery can be a little lazy – for example, Corey’s insecurities and social awkwardness are described as “a cloak I’d forgotten I was wearing.” But these moments are few and far between, and America America is populated with unstilted, straight-ahead storytelling.
Paul Bowles once said that all good novels are detective novels, and that axiom holds true for America America. Until the very last page, you’re hoping to understand each nuance of the plot, every supple detail of the characters. You’re hoping to understand something about our America through the tragedy told here. You hope our young senator and President-elect will rise far higher than Henry Bonwiller and restore dignity to our tarnished country.
Finally, you hope that Corey’s version of the past is no model for the future: “I’d witnessed the making of a politician: how the ritual of deference precedes the auction of influence, and eventually the orgy of slaughter.”
See Also: Why I Write Fiction by Rabih Alameddine