America America by Ethan Canin

19/07/08, The Times

Here is a real political novel, at last, a book which has under its intense scrutiny a radical turning point in history: the steady erosion of power of the Democratic Party from the post-Nixon era down to our times, the death throes of liberal America, and the ascendancy of anti-working class capitalism. It hunts big game but a faltering confidence, indeed an overgroomed scrupulosity, mars Ethan Canin’s ambitious America America from emerging victorious finally.

Narrated by Corey Sifter from the vantage point of the hindsight given him by the thirty-five years that have elapsed between the present and the central events of the book, it tells the story of how 15-year-old Corey, from a working-class family, gets taken up by the immensely wealthy and liberal Metarey family as the protégé of the patriarch, Liam Metarey. Starting off first as a dogsbody in their vast, wooded estate in Saline, New York State, Corey is given a partially occluded view of a moment in history when everything could have taken a different turn. At a time when the Vietnam War is beginning to become unpopular with the American people but Watergate is yet to happen, Liam Metarey decides to throw in his wealth and power behind the campaign of Senator Henry Bonwiller for the Democratic nomination for President of the USA. Bonwiller, a liberal, is virulently opposed to the war and is a true friend of the unions and the working class.

But the death of a young woman, JoEllen Charney, brings everything crashing down. Bonwiller withdraws his campaign, Liam Metarey kills himself, Nixon gets re-elected for second term, the Paris Peace Accords is still a few months away. Mingling real historical figures and events with his fictional ones, Canin tackles nothing less than the vital and grand dichotomies – idealism versus pragmatism, public good and private veniality, the ‘capital class’ and the labour class – of American politics in the latter half of the twentieth century. Sifter, now the publisher of a local newspaper, The Speaker-Sentinel, in upstate New York, and married to Liam Metarey’s younger daughter, Clara, asks himself what really happened. How culpable was Bonwiller for Charney’s death? And how complicit was Metarey, albeit reluctantly, in covering things up in order to bring a liberal candidate to power? Was Nixon’s dirty hand behind the fall of Senator Bonwiller?

But as Sifter ponders these questions and his role of semi-confidant of Liam Metarey, Canin overplays the outsider-with-imperfect-knowledge card and the answers we get are so relentlessly oversignalled as provisional, hypothetical, uncertain that Sifter comes across as an irritatingly ignorant and subservient fool. The unnecessarily hectic commute between the then and now holds up the story so that the present-day Sifter can indulge in a slew of ‘maybe’, ‘probably’, ‘perhaps’, ‘I don’t know’, ‘I can’t be sure’. It radically diffuses the power and undeniable moral energy of a novel that is an incredibly rare thing in contemporary American fiction – both a book about class and about the working class.