Monday, June 2, 2008

Ethan Canin/AMERICA, AMERICA

Thanks to The Early Reviewer Program at LibraryThing, I was lucky enough to get an advance reader's edition of America America, by Ethan Canin. The book will be on sale June 24th.

Corey Sifter is the editor of a small newspaper in upstate New York and the story opens with the funeral of a former US Senator. The story alternates between the present and the period around 1971 when Nixon was in office and the country was torn apart by the Vietnam War.

At sixteen, Corey is hired to work on the grounds of the elegant Metarey estate. Liam Metarey is the son of a Scottish immigrant, who came to America and made his fortune in mining, steel and logging. The town of Saline, New York was built by the Metarey empire and practically every working class family, including Corey’s respects and looks up to Liam Metarey. Liam Metarey, his wife, two daughters and his son are fond of Corey and start inviting him to family activities. He begins spending most of his time with the Metareys. Liam Metarey becomes a benefactor to Corey and pays for him to attend an expensive boarding school. Later, Metarey funds most of Corey's college tuition.

As Corey becomes more educated and sophisticated, he grows away from his working class parents. They want the best for him, so they support his choices, despite their unspoken pain at losing him. Not long after starting preparatory school, Corey begins working for Liam Metarey and spends the better part of every weekend at the estate. Metarey has taken on the role of campaign manager for Senator Henry Bonwiller’s bid for the Presidency in the 1972 election. Bonwiller is a liberal Democrat that the local townspeople consider to be “the best friend a working man’s ever had.”

Corey is exposed to, but isn’t quite savvy enough to understand the machinations of old school politics and back room deal making. Metarey involves Corey peripherally in the cover up of a scandal, although Corey isn’t able to piece the entire story together until many years later.

The primaries get interesting after Senator Edmund Muskie weeps on national television, and it looks as if Senator Bonwiller has a good chance to secure the nomination and the Presidency. The descriptions of power struggle between all of the Democratic candidates in this story and the hints at pre-Watergate subterfuge from the Nixon campaign made me think quite a bit about our politics today.

“The forgotten of this country have a consistent history of turning on their champions, and I suppose the way working men and women have forsaken the very politicians who could help them most speaks of the primacy of emotion in politics. Perhaps the great decline of FDR’s party, which was beginning in Henry Bonwiller’s time, didn’t come about because Democrats favored a logical argument over a moral one, but simply because they clung to the idea that either one mattered at all.”

The story climaxes when a number of individual plot threads and tragedies converge and in the present day, Corey is able to see the truth of what happened through his own journalistic lens and gain clarity and perspective about his relationships with his children and his parents.

“It doesn’t take many years of fatherhood to think you finally understand your own parents, and I’ve long since arrived at that point with mine. And like most everyone else, I’ve grown more grateful for the things they gave me and more respectful of what must have been admirable courage as they watched me go – in my case, to a life utterly different from their own. And as I’ve watched our own girls move away now, too – first to sleepovers, then to summer camps, then to college and boyfriends, then to jobs and husbands – as I’ve watched them one by one walk their own ways, I can only hope that they too arrive at this same juncture, that they too come to see us for what we’ve always tried to do for them, even if it’s not always what we’ve succeeded at. Maybe this is nothing but vanity. But I wonder how we’ve fared with them. I wonder which of our idle words have wounded them and which, years later and a thousand miles away, have buoyed them; which of our hopes have lifted them over the daunting obstacles in their lives and which have pressed back against their own ideas of themselves. I think I know my children, know all three of them, yet I’m certain from my own childhood that of course I don’t.”

Ethan Canin is a masterful narrative stylist. Once I started reading, I tore through the book, unable to put it down and I find myself still thinking about it. Themes of loyalty and love, power and morality, and parents and children all contribute to a satisfying, well written story.

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