America, America by Ethan Canin

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America, America by Ethan Canin

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Paul Harrop
Reviewed by Paul Harrop
Summary: An astute fable of personal and national loss of innocence, as a young man comes of age against the backdrop of an American political scandal.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 480 Date: June 2009
Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing PLC
ISBN: 978-0747598725

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In the popular imagination, certain events stand for American politics in the 60s and 70s. Vietnam. JFK's assassination. Watergate. Maybe Chappaquiddick. In this fable of that era, the first three naturally play a part. The latter, strangely, does not. But it is the incident around which the novel revolves, if only by implication.

The book is written from the viewpoint of Corey Sifter, the middle-aged journalist-turned publisher of a small-town newspaper. He has recently attended the funeral of Henry Bonwiller, once a widely respected Democrat senator. The book is structured as Corey's attempt to establish the facts of a Chappaquiddick-esque scandal 30 years earlier which cost Bonwiller his attempt at the presidency.

That might make it sound like some sort of Woodward-Bernstein probe into political chicanery. It is nothing of the sort. By reconstructing the events of the time through the eyes of Corey's teenage self, author Ethan Canin cleverly puts us at one remove from the action. In doing so he produces a story that is as much about a young man's, as it is about a nation's, loss of innocence. It is equally sharp on parent-child relationships, and on how little we can really know about anything, even those we love the most.

The pivotal events take place around the huge estate in New York state of Liam Metarey, kingmaker to Senator Bonwiller, and heir to a decaying industrial empire. The young Corey Sifter, thanks to the reputation of his father as a hardworking local plumber, lands himself a part-time job with the Metareys. Through his friendship with their daughter, he becomes a trusted protégé of the family. Before long, he is performing menial tasks in support of the Bonwiller presidential campaign, for which Liam Metarey supplies the brains and money.

An unusually diligent and naive – one might even say nerdish – young man, Corey recounts what he sees as the Metarey mansion becomes the eye of a political storm. Even with the hindsight of 30 years, he cannot always make sense of what happens.

Therein lies this novel's strength, but also its weakness. The actual events, in which Corey plays a small but significant part, are never fully determined. So some of the action of the novel can only ever be presented as speculation. We also have the unavoidable fact that Canin is distorting relatively recent and well-known political history. This means that whole lengthy edifice is built upon shaky foundations.

However, it is an impressive edifice. Canin structures the book superbly, switching between the present and past, foreshadowing plot developments before slowly revealing them, weaving a masterful net of suspense. The characterisation is equally deft, avoiding physical descriptions in favour of actions and dialogue which reveal and develop personality without destroying the reader's mental conception of the protagonists.

The tone of the book is wistful, even elegaic. Starting with a funeral, it mourns the passing of a more patrician age. In the final pages, as a shopping mall envelops the Metarey estate, we sense a more benign era smothered by a tide of avarice.

Not that Canin is so crass as to suggest that this is anything new. He rightly shows that the Metarey fortune was built upon the exploitation, even the deaths, of workers. And Henry Bonwiller, early environmentalist and friend of the working man, was not without the vanity and, as we see, the venality that goes with power.

Canin's attempt to show the latter is another of the book's slight weaknesses. As well as the personal disaster that blights Henry Bonwiller's career, Canin introduces a financial scandal (a Whitewatergate to complement his Lewinsky if you will). This does seem like an afterthought. And while it would never have the immediacy for Corey of the events in which he was involved, it is glossed over. This lends an artificiality to a story which otherwise feels authentic, despite our awareness of the actual history which it exploits.

But that is merely a blemish on an engaging novel which takes a fresh and involving perspective on power. In doing so, casts a tender eye over the schemes and accidents, the innocence and the evil that shape our lives and our history, and how often we struggle to tell them apart.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.

You might be interested to read our review of another book which sheds light on nineteen-sixties America. A Death in Belmont tells the story of the Boston Strangler from an unusual perspective.

Booklists.jpg America, America by Ethan Canin is in the Top Ten Books About America.

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