America America

America America

by Ethan Canin

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Overview

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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780812979893
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 05/19/2009
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 480
Sales rank: 1,223,032
Product dimensions: 5.10(w) x 7.80(h) x 1.30(d)

About 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.

Hometown:

Iowa City, IA

Date of Birth:

July 19, 1960

Place of Birth:

Ann Arbor, MI

Education:

A.B., Stanford, 1982; M.F.A., University of Iowa, 1984; M.D., Harvard Medical School, 1991

Read an Excerpt

From Chapter I

2006


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...

Reading Group Guide

1. This novel makes many assertions about the American political landscape in the early 1970s. What are some of those assertions? In what ways have American politics changed since then? And how does Henry Bonwiller compare to today’s politicians, in terms of his political demeanor and beliefs as well as in his sense of both personal and public morality? 

2. Structurally, the novel is braided from several strands–the political story, the personal story, the story about economic class and social station, and the story of the town itself. Which of these stories, in your opinion, provides the novel’s bulwark? How does each contribute to the novel’s themes? 

3. Corey has two father figures in the novel, his own father and Liam Metarey. Despite the differences in their social and economic stations, the men are similar in several ways. How? How do the two of them influence the man that Corey becomes? 

4. Very early in the novel, an elderly man hobbles to the grave of Senator Henry Bonwiller, where he breaks down and weeps. Corey says he recognizes the man but never reveals a name. Why not? Who is this man? Why is it important to Corey that he is weeping? Why are we left to discover for ourselves the man’s identity? 

5. Trieste Millbury, the intern at The Speaker-Sentinel, clearly reminds Corey of himself. What role does she play in Corey’s retelling of his past with the Metarey family? Why does he tell her his story? 

6. At one point in the novel, Corey says: “It struck me again, the way it had just begun to do in those days, how diligently privilege had to work to remain oblivious to its cost.” Then he adds, “I’m speaking of myself now, too, of course.” What are the costs, both to himself and others, of the privileges that have been bestowed upon Corey? Has he in fact worked to remain oblivious to these costs? 

7. Newspapers play an important role in Corey’s life–in their pages, he first learns about politics, and during the Bonwiller campaign he becomes obsessed by journalism and journalists; he interacts with reporters like Glenn Burrant and G. V. Trawbridge in significant ways; and, of course, in the end he becomes a newsman himself. In what ways has news reporting changed during the span of this novel–from the time of Eoghan Metarey’s rise, through Corey’s childhood, up until the present day? In what ways has it remained consistent? What effects have these changes and these consistencies had on our democracy? 

8. In a key scene near the conclusion of the book, Liam Metarey makes a gruesome discovery, then a fateful decision, while driving his tractor through an apple orchard in a blizzard. Why, after making this discovery, does he make this decision? The scene is a pivotal one, yet Corey is not in fact present when it takes place. Since nobody has explicitly told him what happened, Corey’s depiction of the events seems to come largely, or perhaps entirely, from his imagination. What evidence does Corey have for what he deduces? Has Liam Metarey attempted to communicate to him what has occurred? If so, when? And what else might he have been trying to explain to Corey? 

9. In many ways, the interactions of important characters drive the circumstances that result in Liam Metarey’s death. Do you think the principal catalyst for his actions and death was JoEllen Charney? Henry Bonwiller? Andrew Metarey? Or was it something deeper in Liam’s character? 

10. Corey’s description of the relationship between the town of Saline and the Metarey family is one of mutual trust and dependence. How does this relationship change over time, especially with respect to the influence of larger social forces like unionization and the rise of giant corporations? How does the opinion each party has of the other change over time? 

11. Though Corey mentions his wife numerous times early in the text, the reader does not learn who he has married until much later. What is the purpose of delaying this information? And why, when Corey finally reveals his wife’s identity, does he do it with so little fanfare? What is the significance of the information Corey shares with the reader and the information he omits, not only in regard to Clara but to other plot elements as well? Is it fair for Corey to withhold vital parts of his story? Does he leave clues about them nonetheless? 

12. More than once in the novel, the narrator mentions a quotation from Francis Bacon: “If a man shall begin in certainties, he shall end in doubts.” How is this idea reflected in the lives of Liam Metarey, Eoghan Metarey, Granger Sifter, Henry Bonwiller, and Corey? Bacon was no doubt referring to the advent of the scientific method during the seventeenth century, but how might his words apply to our current culture? 

13. Throughout the novel, Corey remembers and retells past events without adhering to chronological order. How does the lack of a linear chronology influence the reader’s experience? Is there a logic to the manner in which he recalls the scenes? Why does he tell the story like this?  

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