America America

During this year?s marathon race for the Democratic presidential nomination, many of us were waiting for the other scandal to drop. The Reverend Wright affair had a little staying power, but Barack Obama escaped relatively unscathed. Hillary Clinton had been under the klieg lights for over a decade, as she liked to point out on the campaign trail, so it seemed more likely that Obama would be the one to see his audacious hope receive a big blow from some revelation from his past. But it was not to be, perhaps to the disappointment of the news media.

The press would have latched on fiercely to the scandalous undoing of the fictional Henry Bonwiller?s presidential ambitions in Ethan Canin?s America America. A senator from New York, Bonwiller is running for the White House in a reimagined 1972 election, battling George McGovern, Hubert Humphrey, and Edmund Muskie for the Democratic nomination. (The mix of real and fictional personages and events in the novel is occasionally unsettling.) The manager and key sponsor of Bonwiller?s campaign is an upstate landowner named Liam Metarey. Along with his father, Liam has essentially built and sustained the town of Saline, not far from Buffalo, by creating a lumber and quarrying empire, and by earning the widespread respect of those who live and work under the family’s wide umbrella.

Bonwiller announces his candidacy and bases his operations at the vast Metarey estate, which then regularly plays host to the press and other notable figures, and the events that set Bonwiller?s fall in motion occur very nearby. An esteemed ally of the workingman at the outset, Bonwiller resembles a member of the Kennedy clan, and his fateful stumble — involving romantic indiscretions and a fatal accident — carries echoes of Ted Kennedy?s 1969 Chappaquiddick affair. As in that actual case, we long to understand the politician?s motivations and his precise role, partly because the magnetism of the powerful only grows when they behave badly. Canin unspools the story of the scandal carefully, shifting between the present and a number of distinct and loaded sequences in the past. The author shows again here the strong storyteller?s instincts evinced in his earlier and more accomplished novel For Kings and Planets, also centered on a young man?s climb on the rungs of a questionable social order. In America America, unfortunately, the rather conventional story of a teenage boy making such a climb takes over the foreground from the more engaging tale of the political downfall he witnesses.

The witness is protagonist and narrator Corey Sifter, a local boy of working-class origins, employed to do various odd jobs on the Metarey property just before and during the campaign season, when he gradually takes on the role of a low-level aide. To the novel?s detriment, we thus generally view the actions of the magnetic Bonwiller and the complicated and convincing Liam Metarey at some remove. For a boy of his station in society at the time, Corey becomes unusually close to the Metareys, including Liam?s two daughters, Christian and Claire, who are near to Corey?s age, but he never comes closer to the senator than watching his press conferences and driving his car in a pinch. Like Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby, he is the outsider narrator — only Corey is relegated further into the margins than Nick, and his perspective does little to lend meaning to the drama he observes.

Corey, almost the archetypal earnest hard worker, never becomes as interesting as either Bonwiller or Liam, two men whose fates become disastrously and dramatically intertwined; when the Senator gets his comeuppance, Metarey becomes, in Canin’s deft description, “a man for whom the poles of grandiosity and despair had come loose from their yoking.” Corey, for his part, relates all this from a distant future in which he is the publisher of a small newspaper and tells us, “I took all my tasks seriously, for I was a boy raised not only with the creed of hard work but with the almost religious understanding that only discipline and diligence brought reward. My grandfather had been a miner; my father was a union tradesman; and now here I was, driving a man who could be president.” As this overly direct statement makes manifest, Corey has a respectable work ethic but lacks imagination and is a prosaic thinker. That Canin has chosen such a person for his main character is regrettable, and it is worse that we have to listen to him express such trite sentiments.

As the novel progresses, Corey becomes more distant from his parents, predictably, as he grows more entwined with the Metarey family, who sail yachts and fly planes and know that you?re not supposed to fill a wine glass to the rim. As the hints of a well-handled romantic storyline develop, we are on Corey?s side (he is, after all, our protagonist and guide) but we are never very closely at his side. We don?t know him intimately enough to feel what he feels, since he remains more a representation of the American dream than a genuine person.

In the present-day narrative, Corey, well along into adulthood, serves as a mentor to an intern at his paper, who draws out of him, in a clever authorial device, all that he knows of the Bonwiller-Metarey story. She, too, is moving upward from humble beginnings and reinforces in Corey an elegiac feeling about his youth. Especially in scenes with his aging and infirm father, who expresses horror at the changes in town (developers turn the site of the Metarey estate into a mall), Corey grows increasingly rueful. This registers as true to life but is hardly surprising or inventive, and the novel coasts into a sedating sunset, leaving in the receding background what is in part an engrossing tale of power and corruption, of “how diligently privilege had to work to remain oblivious to its cost.”