By, Ethan Canin
(2008) Random House Adult Trade Publishing Group
This story, while beautifully written, is difficult to classify. Is it a historical fiction piece? Is it a murder mystery? A coming-of-age story? A political diatribe? A rags-to-riches yarn? Actually, a title as broad as America, America is fitting because it takes on all of these things at once. The shocking part is that it actually works. It doesn’t feel like a reach. In fact, it works quite well by employing something rarely used anymore – the art of subtlety.
The characters - beginning with the first-person protagonist, Corey Sifter - are exceptionally well done. You really do feel that you know them so well - feeling what they feel and sensing what they sense. It is a remarkable art of character development that Canin successfully uses to pull the reader in. In addition to that, he employs a master’s touch of laying out the atmosphere of Western New York - from its culture to the look of the trees and the heaviness of the air. The book is as much art as it is story. As someone who grew up in Erie, Pennsylvania, I can tell you that Canin’s portrayal of that part of the country is spot on. While some reviewers had a problem with Canin jumping back and forth in time throughout the story, I think he did a great job of leading the reader through it without needing to resort to labeling each change with a date. In fact, the layered structure makes the story more powerful and interesting than if it had been laid out chronologically.
Canin also does a wonderful job weaving the fictional Senator Henry Bonwiller into the actual Presidential campaign of 1972. He was able to insert his candidate in among the real-life history without tearing it all apart – an admirable accomplishment in itself. It felt organic rather than shoehorned. Anyone interested in writing historical fiction should pay particular attention to how this story does it so well. However, nobody reading this book is going to have any trouble figuring out which side of the political aisle Ethan Canin falls on. I’m an independent thinker and I like it when writers provoke me to reassess my own beliefs, but it is certainly not lost on me that the book was released in the middle of a Presidential election season. I don’t mind authors inserting issues they find important into their fiction, but frankly, Canin gets a bit carried away and beats the reader over the head with it, especially near the end. It is the one flaw of the book that it feels like a bit of a rant and sticks out from everything else. I don’t mind the message, but a bit of a softer touch might have blended better with the rest of the story.
The political pandering of the book notwithstanding, I really don’t have anything bad to say about the story. It’s not a thriller or a murder mystery. While elements of both are in the story, they are really just another form of scenery. And while there is little real action or dramatic tension, I never felt like the story dragged. That says something for the writing, because that is no easy feat. The real story is the assent of Corey Sifter and how he grows to understand all of the people involved in his life, although sometimes painfully late. America, America does a beautiful job of showing just how the coming-of-age of a young man might look within the womb of a struggle for national power. His ultimate lesson is that he has to learn how to learn - and it is a neverending struggle. This is certainly a book worth reading, if for no other reason than to enjoy the rich characters and lush scenery. There is a lot to experience in this book – you almost need to read it more than once to take it all in. It certainly has its place on the shelves of any reader looking for an artful, character-centered book filled with beautiful prose.
I do have one complaint, however. It’s not with the story, but it is with the book itself. I don’t know when it became fashionable for publishers to make the page edges roughed up and out of line rather than smooth, but please stop it. It doesn’t make the book nicer or ‘classic.’ It just makes it really hard to turn the pages and sheds little paper flakes all over the place. If you want the book to have an expensive, classic feel, focus on the binding and using high-quality paper. Leave out the alignment gimmicks, they really don’t work. On the plus-side, the cover art chosen was fantastic.
Read more of my reviews here.