Friday, June 15, 2012

America, America, by Ethan Canin

As America, America opens, Corey Sifter--the middle-aged publisher of a small but independent daily newspaper serving three communities in upstate New York--is attending the funeral of a former U.S. Senator , Henry Bonwiller. Corey's reflections make clear that he had a history with Bonwiller, who, equally clearly, had suffered some kind of disgrace. Also at the funeral is Corey's teenage intern, Trieste Milbury, who is bright but perhaps naive.

As Corey begins to reflect on his relationship with the Senator, a picture of another bright but naive teenager begins to emerge--Corey, when he was 16 years old and just hired for the summer to work on the estate of  Liam Metarey. Metarey is a complex character, who feels guilt over his family's history and wealth, can repair or rebuild anything needed on his estate, loves his wife and three children, but also fancies himself a king-maker. It is 1971, and Metarey believes he can win the Democratic nomination and eventually the Presidency for Senator Bonwiller, a liberal lion of the Senate who opposes the War in Vietnam. Corey is drawn into events on the Metarey estate--he becomes romantically involved with one of the Metarey daughters and observes the high-level meetings and strategizing going on around him. Something about him draws Mr. Metarey's attention--perhaps simply his willingness to work hard--and the older man arranges for Corey to finish high school at an upscale boarding school. He returns most weekends to work at the estate.

As events unfold in late 1971 and early 1972, Senator Bonwiller's flaws become evident. Eventually, Corey is unwittingly drawn into a cover-up--but even years later, he's not sure exactly what responsibility Bonwiller and Metarey hold in the events they are concealing and who was "in on" the cover-up and who was deceived. 

The novel is told almost entirely from Corey's point of view. In the early sections, the narration ratchets back and forth between 1971-1972 and 2006, the time of the Senator's death. Although the 1971-1972 recollections at first just seem to be Corey's musings to himself, we later find out that some of them at least are actually him talking to Trieste, whose questions highlight where Corey is still managing to keep himself from knowing the truth. A third narrative thread--Corey's college years--begins; then a fourth--this one from the point of view of a young woman who becomes involved with the Senator during the campaign. 

The story is complex--I have not even mentioned some important characters and subplots (some of these fizzle out, while others, like the story of Corey's relationship with his father, add depth to the characters and themes). Like other political novels, America, America is about power, loyalty, vanity, money, and truth (and their opposites). But it is also--and for me primarily--about family. When Corey reflects on the larger-than-life events he experienced on the Metarey estate, he keeps coming back to Mr. Metarey's place within and goals for his family--filtered through Corey's own hopes and regrets as a son and a father. 

America, America is a bit slow-paced and some of the plot developments are foreshadowed a bit too strongly. But the writing is lovely (and beautifully read by Robertson Dean in the audio version) and the story both engaging and thought provoking. Definitely recommended.

Favorite passages:
"You know," he said, "you raise your kids the way you know. You take what your folks did, you try to add what you think of as your own corrections, things that hurt you, injustices, all that kind of thing. And you try to bring these blessed objects into the world so it doesn't do them any more harm than it has to, at least not too early anyway. And then one day you realize . . . they're not all that different from wild animals you could have just found out there in the woods."

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.

Not only are our parents buried cryptically inside each of us, but that we are buried just as cryptically inside each of them and that we may look in either direction to see the secrets of our children and of ourselves.

I can only hope that they[his daughters], 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. 

Note: When you're transcribing from an audio book, it's impossible to guess how a passage might be punctuated, so apologies if these are butchered. 

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