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America America

America America

3.8 111
by Ethan Canin

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In the early 1970s, Corey Sifter, the son of working-class parents, becomes a yard boy on the grand estate of the powerful Metarey family. Soon, through the family’s generosity, he is a student at a private boarding school and an aide to the great New York senator Henry Bonwiller, who is running for president. Before long, Corey finds himself involved with


In the early 1970s, Corey Sifter, the son of working-class parents, becomes a yard boy on the grand estate of the powerful Metarey family. Soon, through the family’s generosity, he is a student at a private boarding school and an aide to the great New York senator Henry Bonwiller, who is running for president. Before long, Corey finds himself involved with one of the Metarey daughters as well, and he begins to leave behind the world of his upbringing. As the Bonwiller campaign gains momentum, Corey finds himself caught up in a complex web of events in which loyalty, politics, sex, and gratitude conflict with morality, love, and the truth. Ethan Canin’s stunning novel is about America as it was and is, a remarkable exploration of how vanity, greatness, and tragedy combine to change history and fate.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“A story in which the audacity of hope confronts the tenacity of power . . . We’ve waited a long time for a worthy successor to Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men and it couldn’t have arrived at a more auspicious moment.” —Washington Post Book World

“[A] many-layered epic of class, politics, sex, death, and social history . . . Its reach is wide and its touch often masterly.”—John Updike, The New Yorker

“An intoxicating big book–in both size and ambition. Thrilling . . . luminous.”—Cleveland Plain Dealer

“A sprawling, captivating, timely work of art . . . Beautifully written, thoughtful, and imbuing all of its principal characters with dignity and understanding, America America is uncommon, ambitious and, like many of its characters, larger than life. . . . A novel that reminds us that fiction matters.”—Houston Chronicle

“Powerful and haunting, a major work.”—Kirkus Reviews, starred review

“A brilliant, serious book for serious readers.” —San Diego Union-Tribune

“Riveting and thought-provoking . . . [Canin] has unleashed all his considerable skills here, and it’s our reward that America America turns out to be his best and most affecting work.”—Miami Herald

“The most mature and accomplished novelist of his generation.”—National Public Radio

A Selection of Barnes & Noble Recommends
This novel by the acclaimed author of Emperor of the Air and The Palace Thief spans four decades of American life. Starting in the Nixon era, America America follows Corey Sifter's progress from his modest roots in western New York to a glittering world of money, ambition, and politics.

Corey's entrée into this realm of promise is the patronage of Liam Metarey, son of a ruthless coal baron who amassed a fortune in the early 1900s. Through Corey's narration, we are drawn into the triumphs and trials of the Metarey family as Liam attempts to orchestrate a presidential nomination for Senator Henry Bonwiller. Thrust into the excitement of the campaign, 16-year-old Corey fetches drinks, parks cars, sets up chairs for press events -- and gets an intimate education in human failings.

A champion of labor and civil rights who opposes the Vietnam War, Bonwiller seems to represent the best traditions of America's liberal coalition. But as both Liam and Corey discover, the senator's moral weakness threatens not only his candidacy but their own hopes and ambitions as well. While rumors of Bonwiller's shady business dealings are held in check by the long arm of Metarey influence, the furor set in motion by the accidental death of a young secretary linked to the candidate is not so easily contained.

Tracing the rise and fall of a politician and a family, and the passing of an idealistic era, Canin's novel moves between the present and the past as Corey chronicles his growth to middle age, his marriage to one of Liam's daughters, and his career as publisher of his hometown newspaper. As he mentors a high school intern at the paper, Corey is prompted to question his own role in the sordid affair that put an end to the senator's presidential bid. Layered with Corey's poignant recognition of what it means to be flawed and fallible, Canin's masterfully crafted plotlines converge to bring this complex tale to its startling, inescapable conclusion.

About the Author
For an author who confesses that he finds the process of writing agony -- "I hate it, I really do" -- Ethan Canin has met with extraordinary success. The author of six works of fiction, including the story collections Emperor of the Air and The Palace Thief and the novels For Kings and Planets and Carry Me Across the Water, Canin is widely regarded as one of the most accomplished contemporary American writers.

"To me, a novel is the story of a life," Canin has explained. "That's what interests me. The guy who works in the laundromat, the professor, what happened to them? Where did they make their mistakes? Why didn't they take that job? Why didn't they marry someone else? You could spend the rest of your life thinking about that."

Ethan Canin was born in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He received early encouragement for his writing from a teacher at his prep school, the bestselling author Danielle Steel. A graduate of Stanford University, he received a master's in fine arts from the prestigious Iowa Writers' Workshop before shifting gears to enroll in Harvard Medical School. Canin continued to work as a physician as he wrote and published his first books.

Currently, he serves on the faculty of the Iowa Writers' Workshop and lives with his wife and children in Iowa and California.

From Our Booksellers
In an election year where the media takes front and center, a book like this -- that encompasses all the scandal, conspiracy, and deceptions of generations -- told through the clear and unflinching voice of an old-school seeker of truth, demands to be read. A timely and lucid story of what it means to be political vs. what it means to be true, and the shifting nature of both through the filter of what we loosely call morality. --Steve Russell, Tucson, AZ

Walt Whitman captured the American spirit with his poetry, and Ethan Canin captures it in his novel. This is a story about the American Dream: about men whowork hard and strive to create a better world for their children, about ambition and the failures and successes that accompany it. It is a wonderful story about the people who are the backbone of this country, and how they have watched it change from a land dotted with farms to one dotted with strip malls. This is truly an American tale. --Patricia Sanders, Towson, MD

Sweeping in scope, Canin's novel is an intricate portrait of the coming-of-age of a boy and the nation around him. --Doug Britt, Chicago, IL

Intelligent and gracefully crafted, this novel is a reflection of the past, a correlation of the present, and a prediction of the future of our politics. Relevant and incrediblysatisfying. --J. C. Barb, Fayetteville, GA

From Reviewers

Ethan Canin's new novel is a powerful lament that haunts us like a latter-day ghost of The Great Gatsby. Like Gatsby, it deals with an orgiastic rupture in the American dream. If F. Scott Fitzgerald anatomized the Jazz Age and delivered its own corrupt and luscious poetry, Canin gives us a poisoned lullaby of the Nixon era.... The language is often supple, can leap from impressionistic poetry to a coroner's report, and can whiplash through time, from the 1970s to 2006. --Publishers Weekly
Publishers Weekly

Canin's marvelous tale of Corey Sifter, a young working-class man who goes to work for a powerful family and ends up entangled in a political debacle, is wonderfully realized by Robertson Dean, whose deep bass tone is at once powerful and intimate. Told from Sifter's perspective as an older man, Dean captures every possible emotion that saturates Sifter's tone, be it regret or affection, and it's hard not to be riveted. His shifts in tone and dialect for many characters are subtle, his pacing is steady. Dean is quite possibly the quintessential narrator. A Random House hardcover (Reviews, Apr. 21). (June)

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Library Journal

Canin's new work about class, politics, money, and media in the Nixon era through the present day will resonate powerfully with readers in this presidential election year. Corey Sifter, a working-class boy from a small New York town, is hired by the Metareys, the wealthiest family in Saline, to be a man-of-all-trades. His work ethic endears him to the Metareys, who treat him as one of the family, even paying for his prep school tuition. As both an insider and an outsider, Corey is in a unique position to observe the political maneuverings of Liam Metarey and his campaign to elect Sen. Henry Bonwiller to the presidency. However, Bonwiller's personal failings ruin not only his political career but also the finances and family life of the Metareys. This saga of politics and family is a superb achievement; Canin (The Palace Thief) interleaves past and present to create a classical tragedy from the very first page. This engrossing novel would be a good book club selection and is highly recommended. [See Prepub Alert, LJ2/1/08.]
—Amy Ford

Kirkus Reviews
A dynasty shattered, a presidential campaign in ruins; a newspaper publisher revisits his youth to better understand an old scandal. This novel of character, Canin's first since Carry Me Across The Water (2001), is powerful and haunting, a major work. Narrator Corey Sifter is the middle-aged publisher of a regional daily in upstate New York. In 2006 he attends the funeral of the ancient Henry Bonwiller, former U.S. senator, the last of the liberal lions. After this low-key start we move back to 1971. Corey is 16, son of a plumber, a true craftsman. They live in Saline, a company town dominated by the Metareys, one of America's great capitalist families. The original Metarey, a Scottish immigrant and ruthless coal baron, has been succeeded by his son Liam, a far kinder man, well-liked. Liam sees a disciplined worker in Corey, self-discipline being the bedrock of character, and hires him as a part-time groundskeeper, then pays his way at a prestigious boarding school as Corey begins a tentative relationship with one of Liam's daughters. Liam is also masterminding the fiercely anti-war Bonwiller's run for the White House; soon Bonwiller is the Democratic frontrunner, but danger lurks. A young woman has been found in the snow, intoxicated, frozen to death. Bonwiller's name is linked to hers, though nobody knows the details. Corey, in a minor way, participates in a cover-up. Only years later, after the birth of his first daughter, does he realize he'd been involved with "something unforgivably wrong." Canin employs with great skill Corey's double vision: the bedazzled loyalty of the teenager, the chastened worldview of the parent. Bonwiller's campaign implodes; the consequences for theMetareys are brutal. The novel is not flawless (Liam, the central character, proves elusive) but the detail work is quite wonderful: The rhythms of a great estate, and the dynamics of a landowning family, are captured with Tolstoyan exactitude. It's the journey, not the arrival, that matters, and the journey is an enthralling one. Agent: Maxine Groffsky/Maxine Groffsky Literary Agency

Product Details

Random House Publishing Group
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5.10(w) x 7.80(h) x 1.30(d)

Read an Excerpt

From Chapter I


When you’ve been involved in something like this, no matter how long ago it happened, no matter how long it’s been absent from the news, you’re fated, nonetheless, to always search it out. To be on alert for it, somehow, every day of your life. For the small item at the back of the newspaper. For the stranger at the cocktail party or the unfamiliar letter in the mailbox. For the reckoning pause on the other end of the phone line. For the dreadful reappearance of something that, in all likelihood, is never going to return.

I wouldn’t have thought, in fact, that I would be the one to bring it back now, after all this time. That I would be the one to finally try to explain it. What I know of it, at least, even if that’s only a part. I can only guess at the other parts. But I’ve been guessing at them for half my life now, and I think I’ve made some sense of it.

Honestly I don’t know what will come of this—who will find pain in what I say and who, in a certain manner, solace. It isn’t only that Senator Henry Bonwiller is dead. His death was melancholy news up here, of course, but it’s not the only reason I’ve set out to tell this. The other part is my children. That’s something I’m certain of. We have three daughters, and one of them is just past the age I was when these events took place, and I must say I feel a certain relief that nothing similar has shadowed any of their days; but I also know that you never stop worrying that it will. After all, if children don’t make you see things differently—first bringing them into the world and then watching them go out into it—then God help you.

The crowd at Senator Bonwiller’s funeral was even bigger than I expected. Probably six hundred people at the morning eulogy—more if you count the uninvited crowd on the sidewalk in front of St. Anne’s, standing under the shade of the sycamores and fanning themselves with their newspapers. And at least a thousand at the burial, which was open to the public that afternoon at St. Gabriel’s Cemetery, not too far away and not much cooler than in town. St. Gabriel’s is in Islington Township, and although no other famous men are buried there, Islington Township is where Senator Bonwiller was born and where he lived until ambition moved him along: I suppose it must have been his wish that he rest there in the end. It’s also where his parents and brothers lie. His wife is buried a thousand miles away, in Savannah, Georgia, with her own parents, and there was no doubt some whispering about that fact. Henry Bonwiller was a complicated man, to say the least. I knew him to a certain degree. Not well enough to know what he would have felt about the grave arrangements, but more than well enough to know he would have been happy about the crowd.

It was a Saturday in late September. A heat wave had killed lawns all across the state, and the smell of rotting apples was drifting up from the meadow. The graveside service had just ended, and we were still crowded beneath the shade of the great bur oaks, whose grand trunks rise evenly across the cemetery lawn as if by agreement with one another. There seemed to have been agreements about other things, as well. The New York Times gave the news an above-the-fold headline on page one and a three-column jump in the obituaries, but their story only included a single paragraph on Anodyne Energy and not much more on Silverton Orchards. The Boston Globe ran an editorial from the right-hand front column, under “The Country Mourns,” and ended with “this is the close of a more beneficent era.” But it didn’t do much more with either bit of history.

I didn’t cover it for The Speaker-Sentinel, because I was at the funeral for my own reasons, but I helped one of our young staff members who did, the high school intern who arrived underdressed in her own ironic way and probably had no idea of half the personages she was looking at. Senator Bonwiller was eighty-nine when he died and hadn’t been in the news for almost fifteen years, but the crowd included more than a dozen United States senators, two Supreme Court justices, the governors of New York and Connecticut, and enough lawyers and judges and state representatives to fill the county jail. I also saw what looked like an entire brigade of retired state police officers, decked out in their old satin-striped parade uniforms. But so many of them were leaning on canes or sitting in wheelchairs that you might have thought Henry Bonwiller had been a small-town slip-and-fall lawyer and not a man who, if certain chips of fate had fallen certain other ways, might once have been president of the United States.

The intern from The Speaker-Sentinel was named Trieste Millbury. Trieste and I have had our share of go-arounds since her arrival at the paper, and to tell you the truth I was wishing that afternoon that I worked at a bigger outfit—perhaps one where the publisher wouldn’t find himself at a funeral with the intern. But that’s the way The Speaker-Sentinel is: we like to send our own people on stories, even if the wire services have us bound and tied. We’re the last of the local dailies not to have sold to McClatchy or Gannett or Murdoch, and though we recently stopped publishing on Sundays we still put out a very good morning edition the other six days of the week, a paper that we write ourselves and have for a hundred and ten years. I’m proud of that.

Though I suspect that it, too, is coming to an end. That’s just the way it is up here in Carrol County. It’s been ten years now since the hardware store had the name Delaney & Sons on it and the bakery had the name Cleary Brothers, and fifteen since the Starbucks in Carrol Center convinced the descendants of Dutch root farmers to speak Italian at the cash register. Senator Bonwiller was the one who lured IBM up here in the first place, and once IBM arrived it wasn’t long before DuPont and Trane and then Siemens followed. And that was the beginning of the way things have turned out now, with our Crate & Barrel and our Lowe’s and the news of an Ikea opening by spring, all the way up here in what used to be lonely country. Plenty of people are grateful to Henry Bonwiller for that. And plenty are not.

Trieste Millbury’s parents, I think, are among the latter. She lives with them in the failed farmland ten miles to the north of us, in a trailer on the edge of a drained bog that was allowed to refill in the 1980s after the Wetlands Protection Bill went through—Senator Bonwiller’s doing, again. That part of the county isn’t as sophisticated as some of the areas to the south, which are dotted now with horse farms and gentlemen’s estates and carriage houses painted historic red. But even so, there aren’t many other trailers where the Millburys live. They’re educated people—Trieste’s father was once a chemist for DuPont—but Trieste, I believe, is the only one of them who goes to work in the morning.

Her job at the funeral was to help our reporter. The reporter was going to write the story, and Trieste was going to write the sidebar. Pick a subject, I told her when the committal was over, anything she wanted, and if she did it well I would run it Monday morning.

“I get a byline,” she said, “right, sir? Just checking.”

“If it’s good,” I said. “Yes, you do.”

The air must have been close to a hundred degrees, and we were making our way to the refreshments. My wife and my father had been at the service, too, but they’d already headed into the stone entrance-house to escape the heat. At the table, a caterer was tearing open the wrapped bottles of spring water, and Trieste took one for each of us.

“If what I write isn’t good, sir,” she said, handing me one, “I wouldn’t want the byline.”

“I suppose that’s true.”

She smiled. “I can tell some of these men are famous,” she went on. “But I don’t know who they are.”

“How can you tell they’re famous then?”

“By looking at them. They’re bigger than ordinary mortals.”

I took a drink. “Powerful men are just like everybody else,” I said. “They put on their pants one leg at a time.”

She smiled again, a habit of hers and a useful quality in a reporter. “Is that something your father used to say, sir? I think I saw him at the service, didn’t I?”

“It is, as a matter of fact.”

“My father says it, too.” She took a sip of water. “But my mother doesn’t agree. She thinks powerful men have to put them on faster.”

“Trieste,” I said. “Senator Bonwiller was important in my life. I’m going to want to spend some time alone here today.”

“I understand, sir. You see anybody in particular I’m supposed to recognize?”

“How about the governor?” I answered, pointing into the crowd. “That’s a good start. And a whole lot of congressmen. But you’re going to have to snoop around a bit on your own, Trieste. Find someone to ask. That’s one of the things reporters do. More reliable than how big the people look.”

“Got it. This water is nice and cold, sir, isn’t it? Wakes you up.” She looked at me. “But I should leave you alone now, shouldn’t I?”

“Thanks, Trieste. That would be nice.” “And by the way,” I said. “Look around. Everyone else is in a suit or a dark dress. This is a senator’s funeral.”

“I know,” she said, moving off toward the crowd, “but this way, at least you can spot me.”

All his life, Henry Bonwiller had made powerful friends and powerful enemies, and as I made my own way into the gathering I saw that this is what the mourners were composed of now: a mix of both equally, united not by their fondness for the man or by their loathing for him, so much as by the fact that they all must have shared strong memories of what the country had been in the Senator’s time, and also by the evident fact that life had now passed them all by. I’ve already mentioned the canes and the wheelchairs. When I was a boy I once heard Senator Bonwiller say that he liked his enemies best because he never had to doubt their sincerity; but walking through the crowd I wanted to tell him that maybe in the end that had been a misjudgment, too. The men and women who fought him—the ones who tried to pull him down with their editorials and their letters and their cocktail party whispers—they were here right alongside the ones who’d sent him Christmas gifts every year and checks every campaign, and they all looked equally affected by his passing. Somehow I sensed they’d all forgiven him. That they’d all forgiven themselves, too—now that the tumble was over.

But walking through the crowd I also saw that Trieste, who’s been on earth not even as long as my youngest daughter, was exactly right: the men I recognized, the ones still in the thick of things, were just as she said—bigger than life. The senators and the governors, and even the members of the state House. There was something that still shone in them. Some light they cast that enlarged them for everyone around.

Dirk Bonwiller, the Senator’s son, was making his way through the crowd. He’d spoken the eulogy that morning at St. Anne’s, and it had only taken me a minute to realize that sometime soon he was going to run for office himself. As an orator he was as practiced as his old man—the same drawn pauses, the same basso whispers, the same poetic repetitions of the phrases—yet I must say that although the object of his eulogy had been the greatest liberal member of the United States Congress since Sam Rayburn and a defender of all the causes that poor people and working people and unions have ever embraced—I must say, you could easily have forgotten that he was also the speaker’s father. There were policy points in Dirk Bonwiller’s eulogy—three or four of them. That’s how that family is.

Dirk is a handsome man in the same way his father was, too, a body of stature and an oversized, deeply expressive face that looks already lit for TV. Even now, after the homily and the prayer and the symbolic spadeful of dirt on the grave, that singular visage was already doing its work as it moved above the dark-hatted thicket of mourners. I used to be able to pick out Henry Bonwiller the same way, the shimmering features passing above the crowd like a bishop’s miter above the congregation.

’m tall myself, and when the Senator’s son passed near me I pressed my way close to him and said, “Fine speech this morning, Mr. Bonwiller. Your old man would have liked it.” I extended my hand above the crowd. “Corey Sifter—I’m very sorry about what’s happened.”

“Yes, I know, I know. Speaker-Sentinel’s a fine paper. Just about the last of ’em.”

“Your people have prepped you well.”

“Not at all. I know your work. We’ve always appreciated your support.” He pulled down his glasses so that he could look over the lenses at me. “I hope we can continue to count on it.”

Then he was hurried along.

Not exactly funeral talk, I have to say—but smooth enough. Our House seat has been held by a Republican for three terms now, as the western half of the state has grown more conservative, but still, Dirk Bonwiller has got to have at least an even chance at it. And after that, who knows what he’ll do? He runs the Farmland Preservation Alliance in Albany, sits on the board of the Bronx Redevelopment Commission, and gave a main-stage address last year at the AFL-CIO convention in Rochester; he has a house up here and a brownstone in Brooklyn, too, and he vacations on Lake Ontario, near Sackets Harbor: it’s no feat to see that he’d speak to all sides of the state Democratic Party when his time comes...

Meet the Author

Ethan Canin is the author of six books, including the story collections Emperor of the Air and The Palace Thief and the novels For Kings and Planets and Carry Me Across the Water. He is on the faculty of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and divides his time between Iowa and northern Michigan. He is also a physician.

Brief Biography

Iowa City, IA
Date of Birth:
July 19, 1960
Place of Birth:
Ann Arbor, MI
A.B., Stanford, 1982; M.F.A., University of Iowa, 1984; M.D., Harvard Medical School, 1991

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America America 3.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 110 reviews.
SusanIL More than 1 year ago
This book was simply devine. I hated for it to end. The characters are vivid and vital and you are engaged by them from the start. Yes, it has echos of the infamous Kennedy scandal -- but the book is more about Corey and his "comming of age" and the struggle to reconcile what your perceptions of those you "idolize" in your youth with what you come to understand of them as an adult. This is the first book of Ethan Canin's I have read, and it certainly won't be the last.
Kate_Sullivan More than 1 year ago
If you grew up in the Kennedy era, one can't help but see the similarities to the final fall of Camelot and all of the characters involved. Specifically, Teddy Kennedy and the death of Mary Jo Kopechne. I don't know if the author intended to draw such a close parallel but I couldn't separate the two events in my mind, which left me feeling uncomfortable. As uncomfortable as I felt back in 1969 when Teddy got off with barely a slap on the wrist. I'm a democrat so it's not sour grapes but rather unfair and unjust punishment for the death of a young woman. In America America I didn't feel like I really knew much about any of the characters and why they did the things that they did by the final page. Especially, Christian, Clara and their mother who seemed to be bordering on the edge of insanity...but why? Putting that aside, I did enjoy the narrative style. I would give this author another try but this book was just so-so for me.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I bought this for a class and was really confused untill I figured out that it was missing parts of the story, I'm not sure if this is only a mistake in the one i bought?
Ben Botwin More than 1 year ago
Great writing. Great story.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I was deeply disappointed by this book. I got it out of the library based on the B&N recommendation, they've been mostly on the mark. This book was very boring. I tried but couldnt get into it.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A very good novel. I'm not quite sure how to categorize it - part political novel, part mystery, part coming-of-age. But the books that can't be pinned down are the best kind, in my opinion.
CamSea More than 1 year ago
It has kept my interest--that's my barometer for how well a book is written.
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Good book If you into the ugly world of politics, this is just the book for you. Politics are a very dirty ugly thing. Nothing or nobody matters except what one can do for themselves in that tainted atmosphere. Good book at telling it like it is.
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It tpuched my heart strings
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