Saturday, March 19, 2011

America America

The novel America America is Ethan Canin's sixth work of fiction. I picked it up because I remembered how much I enjoyed his collection of short stories, Emperor of the Air. I am glad I did.

The story is told by Corey Sifter, the 50-something publisher of a small newspaper in Western New York State. Corey tells the story of his involvement as a teenage yard boy with the wealthy Metarey family and the family's involvement with the 1974 presidential campaign of US Senator Henry Bonwiller, a local boy made very good. At the same time, Corey tells his contemporary story, his talks with a young intern on the newspaper, his feelings about his life as the father of three daughters, and his excursions with now elderly father, a workingman, a union man, an honest craftsman.

Senator Bonwiller is a charismatic figure, liberal, environmentalist, opposed to the Vietnam War, a friend to unions and working people everywhere. Canin has to be careful because, given Corey's menial position on the estate, he cannot be privy to much of the Senator's words, thoughts, or actions. As a result, one of the key incidents in the novel has to happen offstage, and Canin necessarily switches from first-person narration to third so the reader can understand what occurred between the married Senator and a young, pretty campaign aid. Presumably, these are Corey's speculations, but because Canin writes them with the same tone and detail as the rest of the narration, we wonder (I wonder) how he could have known so much.

The book is filled with wonderful descriptions of the natural world--and its destruction. There is not a false note in the 458 pages, and I found much of the writing marvelous. Here, picked almost at random, is Corey musing on his middle daughter:

"Emma is our reticent one. She has in her much of her maternal grandfather, in fact. Much of Liam Metarey's modest grade and affable, generous view of the world, and much of his guarded, quiet solicitude, too. And strange as it may sound, she has grown up touching me on the shoulder, just as her grandfather used to. How is that possible? When she wakes me from a nap in my leather library chair, it is with a hand rustling my hair, and whenever wew part for any length of time, first she hugs me and then, stepping away, she reaches back to touch me on the shoulder...."

The book contains no real villains, only flawed human beings. No real hero, either, now that I think about it. Corey is not even the center of his story; the Senator and wealthy Liam Metarey are at the center. As is America, what we do to our land, what we expect from our leaders, and the tragedy of simply being human.

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