Thursday, October 8, 2009

Book Review: America America

Title: America America
Author: Ethan Canin
ISBN: 978-0-8129-7989-3
Pages: 458
Release Date: 2008
Publisher: Random House, Inc.
Genre: Contemporary Fiction
Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Summary: 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.

My thoughts: One day 16-year old Corey Sifter is living a quiet, sheltered life with his mother and father in the town of Saline, New York. The next day he is offered a job as a groundskeeper on the estate of Liam Metarey, the wealthiest man in the County. Suddenly, Corey is surrounded by wealth power and prestige, a life completely different from the one he's known. When Mr. Metarey decides to manage the campaign of Senator Bonwiller in his run for the presidency, Corey sees a side of American life he knows nothing about, politics.

Some people reading the story of Corey's experiences working for Liam Metarey will think he's just plain dumb; others will consider the small-town boy simply and pathetically naive. Others will assume it's an act when he claims he didn't know anything regarding the death of a young woman and her involvement with Senator Bonwiller, a presidential candidate, which provides the focal point of the story. Those people will be quick to point out that his mother always wanted to be an actress, so deception is in his blood.

As for me, I think Corey Sifter is in love from the minute he met the Metarey family: The father, Liam, his wife June and daughters Christian and Clara. (A son, Andy, is away but Corey couldn't help but find him utterly likeable and approachable when he returns for visits) It might seem his love is only for one or both of the Metarey girls, but it is in fact for the entire Metarey clan. He views Liam Metarey as a second father and is taken in by their lifestyle and the excitement surrounding the Metareys. Their life is in many ways a one hundred and eighty degree turn around from the simple, unexciting existence he's lived as an only child with his parents for the past 16 years. Working for the Metareys, Corey handles responsibilities from chores on the estate to driving prominent guests, not the least of whom was Senator Bonwiller. He is so enamored that he spends more time with them than with his own family, more by choice than circumstance. As the narrator, Corey reflects, saying:

"In the Spring of 1971, near the end of my sophomore year in high school, I went to work for the Metarey family. It was a life that took me by such swift surprise, I now realize, that within a very short period of time I'd lost track of where I'd come from. And because of the Metarey's generosity-I call it that, though I could as easily call it their peculiarity, or, as my wife used to say, their nasty sport- because of how the Metarey's let me into their existence, I think I first took it inside myself, at the age of sixteen, that such an existence might someday be mine."

Corey finds out shortly after he begins working for him that Mr. Metarey trusts him to keep his daughter, Christian, safe. While Clara is the outspoken, brash younger daughter, Christian is more tempered, but she had her moments of abandonment that were cause for concern. It impresses Corey when he discovers that Mr. Metarey likes to fix things himself and is good at it, preferring to do so much of the work around the house and on the grounds himself, regardless of his ability to pay someone else to do it.

Corey is also moved to learn how strongly Mr. Metarey believed in him when he secured Corey a spot (and paid his tuition) at the Dunleavy Academy, Mr. Metarey's alma mater. (Mr. Metarey's generosity went beyond Dunleavy by covering a large part of Corey's college tuition.) Metarey is the first adult to treat Corey with trust and the respect befitting a peer, not a teenager. As such, it makes sense Corey doesn't believe Mr. Metarey was involved in any unsavory business or behaved unethically, no matter how strongly the evidence suggests. It's heady stuff for Corey as he realized that a powerful and prestigious man like Mr. Metarey feels so strongly about him. One wonders, is Metarey manipulating Corey by paying for his education? It certainly seems possible, while at the same time it's also plausible he loved Corey like a son simply because he saw a lot of himself in Corey.

Politics is, by nature, a nasty sport. One should expect wheeling and dealing, unattractive alliances and/or unsavory behavior from politicians, their cronies and their supporters. If Corey is unaware of this proclivity, it would follow that he couldn't believe Liam Metarey behaved in any less than exemplary fashion, or assisted anyone who behaved unethically. So, as Corey matures and sees the real nature of politics, he finds himself torn: if he admits that Liam Metarey acted with less than the highest moral regard for the law, he will then have to face his own involvement in the scandal, no matter how minor or how naive he was at the time that he was manipulated. Corey's dilemma is made all the more difficult as the depth of his loyalty and respect for Liam Metarey becomes apparent. Even as an adult and newspaper journalist, he is reluctant to admit that the man who had as much an impact on his life as his own father, had any part in the Bonwiller scandal.

It is his role as a father, more than anything else, that forces Corey to reflect honestly on the scandal. Events such as the death of Bonwiller (the story begins at his funeral), his father's failing health and the prying questions of Trieste, a new student intern at the newspaper (a fascinating character in her own right with an engrossing family as well) converge and Corey thinks:

"That all one's deeds- those of honor and those of duplicity and those of veniality and those of ruin- that all one's deeds live doubly."

He believes that everything he does, good and bad, impacts not just him but his children equally. He knows his children deserve the truth, especially since Liam Metarey's life is part of his daughters' lineage. (He and his wife have four girls. To divulge the identity of his wife here would constitute a "spoiler".)

Realizing this, Corey wants to understand, as clearly as possible, those events from so long ago for the sake of his daughters as well as for his father. He has come to know and better understand his father (and his now-deceased mother) whom he loves very much, as he learns truths about them that he was completely unaware of as a sixteen year- old boy. Just as one wonders about how much of the scandal Corey remained willfully ignorant, one also might wonder the same about his parents' lives and their decisions regarding Corey's future.

The author does a wonderful job painting the details of the pain and difficulties, joys and sorrows that make up Corey's journey from the 16 year old working class boy to the successful journalist and publisher, father and husband he becomes. He does this while pulling off the difficult trick of taking fictional characters and placing them among real people and events in America's history. He weaves history and fiction seamlessly together: Senator Bonwiller vies for the nomination of the Democratic party against Muskie and Humphrey. President Richard Nixon is in office. The Vietnam War rages and affects the people of Corey's town, making this era of our collective history a very real part of the story, not just background.

June Metarey, the wife of Liam Metarey, is an interesting and quirky character, a woman who isn't afraid to speak her mind and spends most mornings flying her open cockpit biplane, Aberdeen Red. She is under no illusions about politics, Senator Bonwiller or her husband's position as Senator Bonwiller's campaign manager. She's one of the first to hint (in Corey's presence) that all is not well in the world of Henry Bonwiller. But, much to the reader' detriment, Canin doesn't divulge much about Mrs. Metarey, either her past or present . In fact, women seem to be peripheral characters in America America, and that seems to me to be the most disappointing aspect of the story. I would have liked to know more about several of the other female characters like Corey’s mother, not to mention the Metarey sisters. Canin, for my taste, hints at too much, when the plain spelling out of things would serve the reader better. There is such a thing as too much subtlety.

Ethan Canin has written a rich, complex story about power, loyalty, love, corruption and relationships. The style of “America America” is somewhat reminiscent of Richard Russo, (one of my favorite authors) in that it is set in a small town during a pivotal time in America and spans generations. America is changing on scales both small and large. Changes that profoundly affect the main characters. It is a beautifully written, compelling story that is difficult to put down but the reader would do well to read it slowly, savoring its depths and nuances.


  1. Wow ... what a thoughtful and complete review. It seems like this book really affected you and got you thinking.

  2. I think this is a wonderful book. Your review is substantial!

  3. Fabulous review. Definitely one worth reading.

  4. Your reviews always blow me away! This book sounds like a great read!

  5. I really enjoyed America, America as well - reviewed it last year. It really did read as if Canin was painting with his words. A great book and your view was wonderful.

  6. Jenners: I thought about this book a long time before I wrote the review. It's an excellent book and there's a lot going on interms of themes and ideas.

    Kathya: I know you really liked this book, too. Thank you! Have you read anything else by Ethan Canin? (I can't remember if I asked you this!)

    Vivienne: Thank you! I highly recommend this book, it's very good.

    Willoughby: It really is a great book. Reviews drive me a little nuts, writing them that is, I think I spend too much time on them! But I appreciate your compliment, thank you!

    Chad: Thank you! Canin is a wonderful writer, I'm so glad you enjoyed the book too.