Saturday, May 24, 2008

America America by Ethan Canin (2008)

Thanks once again to LibraryThing's Early Reviewer's program, I received an advance reader's copy of America America, the upcoming novel by Ethan Canin (June 2008).

America America is the story of Corey Sifter, a middle-aged newspaper publisher in a New England town who is reflecting on his youth and his ties to the powerful Metarey family in his hometown of Saline. Saline is a mining and logging town that was built by Liam Metarey's robber-baron father and now run under the son's more liberal but still powerful gaze. Corey is 16 and begins working as a handy-man at the Metarey estate -- when the family (including the daughters) take a liking to him, Liam Metarey becomes his benefactor and sends him first to a private boarding school and later to a good college. While away at boarding school, Corey comes back to the estate every weekend in order to help with the increasingly optimistic campaign of Senator Henry Bonwiller -- Liam Metarey's candidate for the Democratic nomination in the 1972 Presidential Election. Bonwiller is a strong liberal candidate, "the best friend the working man ever had," but also an old-school politician who is familiar with the game of public handshaking and back room deal-making.

The reader is led back and forth through time around hints of a Chappaquiddick-type incident involving the Senator and his mistress, and the part in the cover up played by Liam Metarey and Corey himself. Careful not to reveal too much too soon, Canin carefully balances the naivety of the young Corey with the journalistic integrity of the grown-up Corey.

The novel explores the pre-Watergate era of American politics with a nostalgic eye. Intertwined with the political machinations of the Senator and his supporters is the story of Corey's relationship with his own family and the tension inherent in his alliance with the Metarey family and his move into academia and the upper-middle class.

As the book draws to a close it gets a little ponderous and draws some of its themes a little too broadly, but overall this is really an enjoyable read. The structure of the book is nicely done with moves back and forth in time increasing as the key to the story comes into focus. I'm not a huge fan of nostalgia as a primary viewpoint, but Canin mixes his narrator's nostalgia and guilelessness with a healthy dose of realism and sensitivity that makes it more interesting and less predictable. Definitely worth a read.

[And if you are interested, go over here and read an excerpt of the novel.]

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