Ethan Canin's first novel in seven years, America America, is an ambitious tragedy about politics and class, about how the country has changed in the last three decades, and how it has not. Its publication is suitably (and no doubt, intentionally) well-timed to coincide with this year's presidential election circus, and one of Canin's undisguised purposes here is to remind us, as the novel's narrator Corey Sifter reflects, that "one of the hallmarks of our politics now is that we tend to elect those who can campaign over those who can lead."
It was not always so, suggests America America, which centers on the rise and fall of one Sen. Henry Bonwiller, a progressive Democrat of the Kennedy kind, who makes a major run for his party's nomination in the 1972 presidential race. Indeed, he is on the verge of taking it all when a Chappaquiddick-like incident involving the death of a young woman destroys his chances, and dashes the hopes of all who want Nixon out of the White House and an end to the war in Vietnam. The novel opens in 2006, as Bonwiller's death prompts Corey—now publisher of the local newspaper in Saline, the upstate New York town where he grew up and where the campaign ultimately unravels—to recount the story of that fateful year to a young intern at the paper.
Corey was a working-class teenager when he had the good fortune to go to work on the estate of Liam Metarey, desendant of a robber baron, who keeps the local economy afloat with his largesse. Despite his wealth and upbringing, Metarey, one of the novel's many likeable characters, is a high-minded advocate of the common man, and he quickly spots Corey's potential. The boy becomes an adjunct member of the family, and Metarey even arranges to send him to an exclusive prep school. As the wealthy man's trusted liege, Corey bears quiet witness to the machinations of Henry Bonwiller's campaign, which Metarey is financing. It is this not-so-sentimental education in the ways of politics that forms the spine of the story.
But the more interesting story involves Corey's transformation from union man's son with limited prospects to astute observer of the privileged and powerful. In this way, he is like Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby, both in his slowly evaporating naivete and in his sense of disjunction in an alluring world. Canin furnishes us with something Fitzgerald never did, though—we get to see Corey's often tender relationship with his good-hearted parents. These scenes are among the best in the novel, free from irony, and affirming underlying notions about the unadorned nobility of the American working class. Corey's relationships with Metarey's two daughters are less satisfyingly depicted, perhaps because the early narrative must remain somewhat elusive in order to conceal some key developments later in the story.
Almost another character in the book, the landscape of the Metarey estate and the surrounding region, wedged between two Great Lakes in western New York, is weighted with its own significance. This is territory that Joyce Carol Oates has long claimed as her own, as is the uneasy rapport between its blue-collar and privilegedresidents, but unlike Oates (who, interestingly, also wrote a novel with echoes of Chappaquiddick), Canin eschews internal melodrama. His prose is as straightforward as his characters, and Corey's slow-burning realizations about life are not fraught with angst.
America America is longer than it needs to be, which is surprising when you consider that Canin is an acknowledged master of the short story. In terms of Henry Bonwiller—who remains something of a cipher, as perhaps a politician must invariably be—the reader can see what's coming almost from the start, and other story-altering events are telegraphed too early. Still, the novel has a calm sweep that envelopes the reader, sustaining interest with its honest depiction of life. It is not so much nostalgia for a better time that drives the story, but truthful memories of a different time, better in some ways, worse in others. Though America America is a novel about disappointments on a grand scale, it comes in the end to be also a story about how we survive those disappointments. Time moves forward, and you can't go home again—even if you never really left.