By Ethan Canin
Random House. 458 pp. $27
America America is Ethan Canin's best novel, but its timing is unnerving. His ruminative story begins with a funeral for the country's greatest liberal senator, whose presidential ambitions were smashed years earlier by the death of a young campaign aide in a drunk-driving accident. The novel really isn't about Sen. Ted Kennedy, but the resemblance is impossible to ignore, and Kennedy's recent announcement that he has a malignant brain tumor has already started, for many of us, the process of reflection that America America records in such sensitive detail.
The middle-aged narrator, Corey Sifter, was an eager, observant teenager during Sen. Bonwiller's campaign for the presidential nomination in 1972. Now publisher of a small newspaper, Corey looks back on the events of that time, amazed by the shady, private way power brokers and journalists once conducted the nation's politics. He was 16, living in a town near Buffalo, N.Y., "that was almost entirely built and owned by a single family, the Metareys." Despite their vast wealth and influence, the Metareys had, over several generations, become modest and beneficent lords. They drove ordinary cars, shopped in the same stores as their employees and sent their children to the public schools. Corey tells us that the patriarch, Liam Metarey, "was a generous, civic-minded, and altruistic patron of the whole community," with a strong interest in shaping government from behind the scenes. He got Henry Bonwiller elected to the Senate and tried with all his might and money to get him elected president. That disastrous effort becomes the backdrop of this complex novel.
Canin carefully splices his fictional characters into the news of the 1960s and '70s -- a masterful feat of literary Photoshop. The Vietnam War is tearing the country apart and wearing down President Nixon; Sen. Edward Muskie hasn't cried yet in the New Hampshire snowstorm, but Bonwiller's people already believe their man can beat him for the Democratic nomination. Liam Metarey's house serves as the Bonwiller headquarters, and we see the campaign from a highly impressionistic and limited point of view. After all, Corey, the son of solid working-class parents, is just a high school sophomore during this heady political time. He gets a job as a groundskeeper on the Metarey estate, which gives him a venue, he notes, to observe "everything that was happening so openly, and yet so mysteriously, in front of me."
While the nation's eyes are on Sen. Bonwiller, we focus on Liam Metarey, an introspective kingmaker more comfortable fixing his tractor than counseling legislators. Wearing his noblesse oblige like an old flannel shirt, he takes a fatherly interest in the boy, and before long he's treating him as a son and sometimes even a confidant. "I'd lost track of where I'd come from," Corey admits. "And because of the Metareys' 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 Metareys 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." His ambitious feelings are further complicated by his attraction to one of the beautiful Metarey daughters, an attraction her father seems to encourage despite the yawning distance between their two families.
Canin, who teaches at the Iowa Writers' Workshop, has written before about the seductive and transformative power of people with extraordinary wealth, but never with such sensitivity. His overly lush For Kings and Planets (1998) described a wide-eyed boy from Missouri who goes to New York and befriends a dazzling, affluent student at Columbia University. Maybe America America presents a more intricate and mature exploration of this theme because the author no longer seems so spellbound by money. That emotional distance allows Canin to draw the rich and poor as vastly more interesting and multivalent characters.
America America isn't hawking any particular partisan agenda, but like other great political novels, it's a story in which the audacity of hope confronts the tenacity of power -- and loses. As Corey looks back on his teenage self and the men who plotted to take the White House that year, the novel becomes a reflection on a young man's maturity and the moral calculus of democratic government. "I've never known another politician, and have never again in my life come so close to a man of history like Senator Bonwiller," Corey says. "I took every incident as a fable, every milestone as a fortuitous lesson on how to act in this new and public world. . . . I didn't like him much, even then, but I suppose in those days there was nothing I wouldn't do for him."
Sen. Bonwiller is celebrated as the man who did "more for the causes of civil rights and labor than anyone in congressional history." But what troubled Corey then and continues to haunt him as an adult is the contrast between "public idealism and such personal ruthlessness," between the character needed to win an election and the character needed to lead a nation. Once the office has been attained, Corey notes, "then a politician must make a transformation that he may have no more ability to make than he has to grow wings and fly. He must change his personal ambition into ambition for his country."
One has to accept -- even enjoy -- a fair amount of such wisdom in America America. In addition to his role as a teacher in the country's most prestigious writing school, Canin is a physician, and perhaps those two offices of supreme authority are responsible for a narrator who tends to lecture. That's fine with me, so long as the lecturer is this insightful and moving. We've waited a long time for a worthy successor to Robert Penn Warren's All the King's Men, and it couldn't have arrived at a more auspicious moment than this season of potentially epochal political change. ·
Ron Charles is a senior editor of Book World. He can be reached at email@example.com.