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 of the United States. 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.
I am reminded of a blend between “All the King’s Men” and “Brideshead Revisited”. I am also reminded of the present.
The time is the early 1970s. There is a presidential election. People are tired of the U.S.’s presence in Vietnam. On the scene is Henry Bonwiller, a charismatic liberal who becomes a frontman for the democratic nomination. In Bonwiller, we see a political stooge, a mouthpiece of the smarter and purer-of-heart liberal capitalist Liam Metarey, who is Bonwiller’s campaign manager. Bonwiller doesn’t get the nomination: there is a tragedy, some gross errors of judgment. There are suggestions of the all too common missteps of high profile politicians over the last couple generations. The question is asked: what really happened. Who played what part in the events? Who was changed by events and how?
The message of hope and change during a time of profound societal disenchantment rings eerily familiar during our present election-time. The inner-workings of the political machine; the “right” person at the right time, the ebb and flow of support and media coverage: all of it fickle and haphazard and almost accidental. But inside that complex machinery are good, if imperfect, well-meaning people.
Narrated in first-person by Corey Sifter, now a newspaper publisher, but during Bonwillers presidential run, he was a young man of modest means, employed by the Metarey family, and an unwitting witness to an unfolding of a uniquely American drama.
I enjoyed the characters, the action, the story’s momentum. Though it forced me to pay attention, I even liked the chronological shifts, the slow unfolding of the backstory, the stories of the lives of the people, another kind of complex machinery.
It has some problems too, because in an effort to make the characters more subtle and nuanced, they lose some pungency. The interleaving of time periods is a bit contrived, and the foreshadowing of plot twists or revelations are so heavy, that the reader receives the knowlege with a growing disappointment of denied delight.
And yet, this is also a delightful novel of a period we need to think about in the Great American Novel perspective. The Vietnam War era needs to be knitted into the fabric of American dialogue and Canin has portrayed a moment when the political establishment had to changed as the media changed.
The novel is both written and structured well, narrated by an interesting first person who knows enough of the town secrets to keep you interested, but not all, and who has an unwillingness to share all that he does know. What is the right thing to do when your mentor's family overreaches? Do you forgo their largesse or do you look the other way and try to pretend that everything is all right? We find the narrator musing, "Liam Metarey remains a mystery to me to this day. I knew him for what he seemed to be in the eyes of a sixteen year-old boy . . . In retrospect I understood almost nothing."(p 427)
The author sometimes, however briefly, strikes notes of hubris in his assumptions about what is good for America, but because this is fiction the reader can forgive him and remember that real world politics is never as idealitically pure as it may be portrayed by novelists with "rose-colored" glasses. In spite of this I truly enjoyed this book for most its sentiments and for those passages that betrayed an honesty and love for an America that was and, hopefully, may not yet be lost.
Overall I enjoyed the story mostly for the insights about a changing country and the observations of a sensible boy who knows he does not quite belong. It was also nice for me to read a 1st person narration from a character who was my age. The events and circumstances of the 70's were an added bonus for me. I would recommend the book and look forward to others by this author.
Canin sets his story in the fictional western New York town of Saline - a town experiencing change as profound as the political landscape of which it has played a part. Henry Bonwiller, the flawed politician whose presidential campaign we follow, provides the basis to wonder whether his campaign represents a new hope of great ideas or a grand form of political pandering. No matter the answer, as Bonwiller eventually falls from grace, one cannot help but believe that the time for great leadership has passed and all that is left is a base form of partisan politics.
America America prompted me to reflect on what may have gone wrong and when with our domestic political process. It also provides a glimmer of hope that leadership, great ideas, and a better world are still possible. Maybe this is the year?
The characters - beginning with the first-person protagonist, Corey Sifter - are exceptionally well done. You really do feel that you know them so well - feeling what they feel and sensing what they sense. It is a remarkable art of character development that Canin successfully uses to pull the reader in. In addition to that, he employs a master’s touch of laying out the atmosphere of Western New York - from its culture to the look of the trees and the heaviness of the air. The book is as much art as it is story. As someone who grew up in Erie, Pennsylvania, I can tell you that Canin’s portrayal of that part of the country is spot on. While some reviewers had a problem with Canin jumping back and forth in time throughout the story, I think he did a great job of leading the reader through it without needing to resort to labeling each change with a date. In fact, the layered structure makes the story more powerful and interesting than if it had been laid out chronologically.
Canin also does a wonderful job weaving the fictional Senator Henry Bonwiller into the actual Presidential campaign of 1972. He was able to insert his candidate in among the real-life history without tearing it all apart – an admirable accomplishment in itself. It felt organic rather than shoehorned. Anyone interested in writing historical fiction should pay particular attention to how this story does it so well. However, nobody reading this book is going to have any trouble figuring out which side of the political aisle Ethan Canin falls on. I’m an independent thinker and I like it when writers provoke me to reassess my own beliefs, but it is certainly not lost on me that the book was released in the middle of a Presidential election season. I don’t mind authors inserting issues they find important into their fiction, but frankly, Canin gets a bit carried away and beats the reader over the head with it, especially near the end. It is the one flaw of the book that it feels like a bit of a rant and sticks out from everything else. I don’t mind the message, but a bit of a softer touch might have blended better with the rest of the story.
The political pandering of the book notwithstanding, I really don’t have anything bad to say about the story. It’s not a thriller or a murder mystery. While elements of both are in the story, they are really just another form of scenery. And while there is little real action or dramatic tension, I never felt like the story dragged. That says something for the writing, because that is no easy feat. The real story is the assent of Corey Sifter and how he grows to understand all of the people involved in his life, although sometimes painfully late. America, America does a beautiful job of showing just how the coming-of-age of a young man might look within the womb of a struggle for national power. His ultimate lesson is that he has to learn how to learn - and it is a neverending struggle. This is certainly a book worth reading, if for no other reason than to enjoy the rich characters and lush scenery. There is a lot to experience in this book – you almost need to read it more than once to take it all in. It certainly has its place on the shelves of any reader looking for an artful, character-centered book filled with beautiful prose.
I do have one complaint, however. It’s not with the story, but it is with the book itself. I don’t know when it became fashionable for publishers to make the page edges roughed up and out of line rather than smooth, but please stop it. It doesn’t make the book nicer or ‘classic.’ It just makes it really hard to turn the pages and sheds little paper flakes all over the place. If you want the book to have an expensive, classic feel, focus on the binding and using high-quality paper. Leave out the alignment gimmicks, they really don’t work. On the plus-side, the cover art chosen was fantastic.
It was a song we all learned and sang, growing up in this land of the free. And in this novel, AMERICA AMERICA, Canin has painted a vibrant and lushly detailed prose portrait of what it was like to grow up in the America of the 1970s, and has also filled in a dark and often murky background of just how this country was built. The blood, sweat and tears are all there, along with the cruelty and ruthlessness that were often the hallmarks of the early barons of industry - lumber, coal, oil and railroads.
Canin's young protagonist, Corey Sifter, is a kind of Everyman - raised by working class parents, but then lifted above his class by means of private schools and higher education, a gift from the wealthiest family in his upstate New York town. Liam Metarey is the third generation of immigrants who rose to that robber baron level of extreme wealth. Unlike his ruthless father, Liam is a decent man, a king-builder who supports the presidential candidacy of New York senator, Henry Bonwiller, and along the way takes young Corey under his wing and teaches him the ways of the world. Under Liam's tutelage, Corey learns much, some lessons much harder than others.
Canin has created a large cast of fully human characters in the Metarey and Sifter families, as well as the conflicted Bonwiller with his grandiose ambitions, vain affectations and ultimately fatal flaws. He employs a first-person narrative - Corey looking back at those heady times leading up to a national election from an adult perspective, thirty-plus years later. He has become the owner publisher of a small independent newspaper in a time when such businesses are going the way of the buffalo. There is wisdom, but also much doubt and wonder about the human condition in the voice Canin has given to Corey. And that is what makes this book so magical, so real, so nearly perfect as a fictional representation of how it was in the Nixon years, the Vietnam war years.
Perhaps I was able to identify so closely with Corey because I was a college student myself during those times of unrest and protest. I was already a veteran, and, much like Corey Sifter, I did not participate in all those things. Instead I kept my head down and concentrated on my studies, feeling so often like a fraud, like one who didn't deserve to be at college, desperate to prove myself, to earn the exalted slot I'd found myself in, going for that degree. My father, like Corey's, had never gone to college.
Ah, hell. I know I'm tripping over my own tongue here, trying to convey how much I enjoyed this book, how I was transported back and forth in time by the jumps from past to present in the narrative; how often I had to simply stop reading and think about where I'd been and what I'd been doing during those times. Because Corey's story brought so much back from those eventful, turbulent, troubled times.
And there are scenes here which will just break your heart too, where Canin skillfully shows you the truth in the saying, "sometimes less is more." Try reading the section where Corey comes home from school the first time after his mother has died and watches his father in the kitchen, carefully preparing their simple supper." What will break your heart here are the things that are NOT said. Less is more.
And then there is the lavish party thrown for thousands at the Metarey estate when the Bonwiller campaign is in serious disarray, and, as the party-goers swiftly begin to slip too soon away, the Ray White quintet playing, finally, its bluesy "mournful rendition of 'America the Beautiful'."
Or consider Corey's mature reflections on how family forms, influences and affects us: "... I had the first inkling then of what I know now from experience - that 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 ourselves."
This kind of quiet, stately wisdom is found througout this book. The kind of stuff that makes you sit back and think, 'Yeah, he's right; that's the way it really is." And at the same time you're just marveling at Canin's skill, at this unusual insight into how people think, how they just are.
There's nothing sensational in the way Ethan Canin writes. But there is a kind of measured, quiet dignity in his diction, in his choice of words, in what he chooses to elucidate - and his choices are always the right ones. I found the same qualities in his earlier book, CARRY ME ACROSS THE WATER. This newer, considerably longer book, digs a little deeper, sheds a little more light on the people and forces that have shaped this country. AMERICA AMERICA indeed. With it, Ethan Canin continues to make the world of American letters a richer, better place. I can't wait to see what he comes up with next.
Corey Sifter, a hard working and level headed boy, is noticed by Liam Metarey who owns the town's land and goes to work on his estate. At that great house Corey is caught up in the politics of the day as an inside outsider and unwittingly becomes a part in a nasty scandal.
One of the things I really liked about this book was that it told the truth from both sides. Canin speaks plainly about political intrigues, media manipulation, and even corruption, but on the flip side describes national idealism and an astounding vision of what a democratic society could be. It is obvious on every page how much Ethan Canin loves his country despite it's flaws in leadership and believes wholly in the strength of the common man. I highly recommend this fine work.
The novel is narrated by a middle-aged newspaper publisher--Corey Sifter and looks back into the past when as a teenage son of working class parents he is hired to work on a huge estate owned by the son of an early 20th century robber baron. The Metarey family now headed by Liam Metarey--of Scots heritage own a vast estate in the western part of New York state. Liam is a committed democrat--a man on a mission to get his US Senator Henry Bonwiller elected President of the United States--his main intention being to end the Viet Nam War. Bonwiller of course is a fictional character--maybe a conglomerate of other real political figures circa 1972. He is one of the democratic candidates running against Richard Nixon who is running for his second term. Like politicians of all stripes--including Nixon--Bonwiller is deeply flawed.
The story also very much revolves around Corey Sifter's working class father and mother juxtaposed against the Metarey family (besides Liam) his airplane obsessed wife June, their son Andrew (an army volunteer doing a stint in Vietnam) and their two daughters Christian (with whom Corey has a flirtation) and rebellious Clara (who will later become Corey's wife).
Liam Metarey is impressed by Corey's dad Granger who is a real handyman and likewise impressed by Corey himself who thrives the more work he's given. Over one summer he takes young Corey under his wing giving him more and more responsibility around his farm. His daughters both seem to vie for his attention although it is the older and calmer Christian who gets most of the attention whereas has to create events to get the same. While this is going on Liam and Henry are also preparing their run--Corey sometimes driving the Senator around town becoming involved peripherally on the course of national events. As the summer winds down Corey is given an opportunity by the Metarey family to move away some hundred miles to the same prep school that Liam attended. Corey's mother pushes him to this opportunity. He does not know that she is critically ill. Corey returns on weekends continuing to help the Metarey family and Sen. Bonwiller. As it happens the Senator is having an affair and as it happens disaster strikes leading to death--leading to a coverup that just won't stay covered. There are allusions to that even throughout from the very first pages and I'd rather not go into detail though it bears a similarity to a very famous scandal.
The book also has a present setting. Corey as a small town independent newspaper publisher. His father Granger living in an old folks home after suffering a stroke but still present in mind and more than less functioning in body. A young intern news reporter from a trailer park--Trieste--rebellious, impish but also very likeable. The novel contrasting the past with the present not only as the march of evolution but also in the realm of politics. Politics is a main ingredient here. It is what drives the action throughout. Bonwiller's candidacy gets so very tantalizingly close but it is something that is not to be as he's forced out and Nixon will go on to sweep McGovern only to become a victim of his own dirty tactics later on during Watergate.
There is a lot to this book to like. There have not been all that many interesting american novels so devoted to american politics as this one. Edwin O'Connor's 'The last hurrah' or Gore Vidal's 'Linclon' or 'Washington D. C. ' spring to mind. Told in flashback America America at times teeters on the edge of being a little glib, a little facile. Canin is able to hold things together for the most part--even as a middle aged Corey looks back on a much more innocent idol struck younger Corey living out an idyllic summer that he never quite is able to understand. At times I think the young Corey might not have been the perfect narrator of this story--that maybe even the younger rebellious Clara who seems much more intuitive might have been a better candidate for that job.
All in all though it is a very good book. It is interesting personally for me to look at an age of my own political innocence as I would have been around the same age as Corey. Although I think it is flawed in places it is not by any means mortally so. What is more if nothing else it is an entertaining read--I would call it even a page turner--a nice snapshot of the world of politics in its time.
The device of shifting the narration in time works well and enables Canin to build suspense and foreshadow the tragedy that will destroy the Bonwiller campaign. The plot is engaging and the characters interestingly portrayed. My only complaint about the book is that is seems to go on longer than necessary. During the last fifth of the novel, I found myself wishing it would end already. Canin’s points had been made and the plot satisfactorily resolved long before the final page of the book. Still, Canin’s writing style is appealing and I will seek out his other novels.
The result is a beautifully written book that perhaps reaches for more than it achieves. The story, told by decent, hard-working Corey Sifter, moves back and forth in time from the present to Corey’s teen-age years when he was witness to events that brought down a senator and all but destroyed the Metareys, the benevolent family of landed gentry that employed most of the town and took Corey under its wing. But despite the skill with which Canin tells the story, I found myself curiously uninvolved – skating along the surface rather than drawn in and caring deeply about the characters. In particular, the Metareys and Senator Bonwiller never came alive; their characters seemed to lack the depth that I admired in “The Palace Thief” and I was unmoved by their flaws and destructive behavior. On the other hand, Canin seemed more comfortable with Corey and his working-class family and neighbors, giving us meticulously observed descriptions of their lives, their work and their losses.
I admired this book but I didn’t love it. Canin is a fine writer but I thought the emotional wallop of his stories was missing here.
In the mean time, Liam throws his considerable weight and money behind Senator Henry Bonwiller, who begins a run for the White House. But Bonwiller has a secret that will eventually shatter the Metarey family and challenge Corey's views of right and wrong.
Corey narrates the story from the present, as a solid family man bent on making sense of what he remembers of the past. The first two-thirds of the book showcase Canin's lyrical prose and absolute ability to flesh out even the most peripheral of characters. There is an almost dream-like quality to some of Corey's memories, as though everything is being viewed through smoked glass.
Unfortunately, Canin could have done with some tougher editing as the book moves into the last third. A side plot involving Corey's elderly father feels tacked on and unnecessary. Ditto the adult Corey's attempts to mentor a junior colleague in a clumsy mirroring of what he experienced as a young man.
But even a scattered ending cannot detract for a good read. Canin takes time-honored themes (poor boy/rich family; a politician's infidelity) and reshapes and renews them. "America America" will especially appeal to readers who enjoy family sagas.
At any rate, this book has all the elements to bake something wonderful, but failed to rise to the occassion. Better luck next time.
Going against the trend, I found the overly used, almost constant foreshadowing annoying. Why all the suspense only to reveal an overly familiar story? Leaving one key element unexplained (re the sisters) was also very frustrating.
Sorry, I really wanted to love this one.
We know that Senator Bonwiller will not win the presidency nor even acheive the nomination of the Democratic party because this story is tied to real events and we know that George McGovern won the nomination and Nixon was re-elected with a landslide in 1973. So there is no mystery there but there is mystery and a dark side to this story. Corey played a part in the dark secret but he doesn't truly understand it until much later in his life. The story is told mostly through Corey's eyes, as a teenager working as a handyman , waiter, driver, fixer-upper on the magnificent Metarey estate, as a college student returning to work weekends at the Metary estate in the frantic campaign to secure the nomination for the Democratic party for Senator Bonwiller, and later as a middle-aged newspaper publisher and editor in the same small community. The highs and the lows of a political campaign are there in glorious detail and today the enemy is the other candidates and tomorrow it is the sitting president, Richard Nixon, who is, for example found to be the source of a damaging rumour.
This is the story of a by gone era in American politics, when Democrats stood up and fought for working people, for peace, and for civil rights. Could the pride of American industry ever have been saved so that people like Corey's father could live a life of hard work but security and pride? But this is only something to ponder, the attraction here is the story. The lessons are universal, does it matter about personal flaws or morality when a politician accomplishes important things for his or her country? How do we judge such a person? How far should personal loyalties go? Corey faces these very issues and only in middle age does he really reflect on the facts (and thereby tell us the story), face what happened and remain comfortable with the life he has chosen.
I did notice that a number of other reviewers commented that the book was too long and that the story continued even after we knew the answers to the secrets and the dramatic events have ocurred. A quick shutdown may have been too abrupt given the more leisurely tone of the book and the readers complete involvement with these characters. I didn't mind it at all.
An absolutely wonderful read.
The story revolves around the presidential campaign of the local liberal senator, Henry Bonwiller. Although the story is set in the 1972 election and in upstate New York rather than Massachusetts, the story is superficially that of Edward Kennedy. There is an affair, a car accident, a dead mistress. Then there is a cover-up, or a misdirection of some kind. But the truth of what actually happened is shrouded from the reader.
This story is told mainly by Sifter, who, although an insider in both the Metarey family and the Bonwiller campaign, is largely kept ignorant of the backroom politicking. The bulk of the story is told in his first-person narrative, and we know only what he knows. Occasionally the narrative shifts to the perspective of the dead mistress, but she is equally ignorant, and what actually happens doesn't become any clearer when told from her point of view. This is an effective, but frustrating technique. I wanted to know what happened!
For all that, though, this is a good book. It's well-written, and the story itself is compelling. It tells of a way of life that changes from one generation to the next and of the influence that one family can have on a whole town.
This one, I can enthusiastically endorse.
Canin spans early 1970s through post 9/11 America, or more specifically western New York. But not as much the economically depressed western New York of Richard Russo novels (although it does play a role), as the wealthy, powerful, politically connected New York State which factors into national presidential elections.
Canin plays out his story in jumps and starts, switching between three periods in the life of our protagonist, Corey Sifter, his high school years, his college years and his present day. As we move between these three spans, Canin parcels out tidbits which in the end allows the protagonist and the reader to fashion a likely solution to the central puzzle of the novel.
Canin is often oblique in his development of the narrative but this refusal to lay it all out for the reader works to emphasize Corey's journey from impressionable young yard boy to powerful newspaper publisher.
Altogether, a gripping, thoroughly enjoyable novel about politics, power, noblesse oblige and tragedy.
From the back cover:
From Ethan Canin, bestselling author of The Palace Thief, comes a stunning novel, set in a small town during the Nixon era and today, about America and family, politics and tragedy, and the impact of fate on a young man’s life.
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 of the United States. 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.
America America is a beautiful novel about America as it was and is, a remarkable exploration of how vanity, greatness, and tragedy combine to change history and fate.
About the Author
Ethan Canin is the author of six books 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. He is on the faculty of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and lives in Iowa, California, and northern Michigan.
I suppose in the end, I felt satisfied by the book, certainly enough so that I'm curious about Canin's other work. However, I did find it very dull at points, and the dialogue sometimes felt stilted. If this had not been an ER book, I have a feeling that I would have taken months to read it instead of weeks, and so found the names and jumps in time more confusing than they occasionally were. In the end, the more I look back at the read, the more I see many points when Canin made it much more complicated and needlessly mysterious than the story called for, which I admit makes me somewhat skeptical of looking at his other works, or ever coming back to this one.
Corey Sifter, the narrator, is the son of a working class man in small town New York during the early 1970’s. When he is a young man, Corey’s work ethic and good manners attract the attention of a wealthy neighbor, Liam Metarey, who hires Corey as a boy Friday on the Metarey family estate. As the years pass, Corey becomes a fixture in the Metarey’s lives, first at the fringes, then within the fabric of the family.
Liam Metarey is generous with his money and time, sponsoring Corey at a prestigious boarding school and helping launch the presidential bid of a larger-than-life New York senator. Corey is exposed to inner workings of political ambition and possibly corruption. Ultimately, he becomes enamored with the glamorous lifestyle that comes with the Metarey’s power and privilege. The political campaign is rocked by scandal, Corey is unwittingly involved in the cover-up, and the position that Corey has been enjoying begins to unravel.
Corey narrates the story as a middle-aged man, removed from, but still connected to, the Metarey family. Nostalgia, innocence, and innocence lost, color Corey’s memories, but the story from his perspective still rings true. As befits the viewpoint of a star-struck teenager, each character is primarily good and well-meaning. Mistakes and character flaws are seen to Corey as anomalies and not core deficiencies. As a result, most of the players are sympathetic and likeable.
Ethan Canin’s novel pulled me in during the first chapter and didn’t let go until the end. It’s this kind of book that I wanted to read slowly and savor the characters and their relationships with each other. This book made me feel like I often do when I read one of my favorite Richard Russo novels – I wanted to step inside the pages and spend some time with the Sifter and Metarey families.