America America

Shades of Chappaquiddick in the terrific novel about a political dynasty

Book Review

America America

by Ethan Canin
Random House, 480 pp., $27

It is a frequent joke in literary circles that to have a hit novel, all you really need is to work the word "America" into your title. From American Pastoral to American Psycho, that one word has delivered market success to some of our most deserving fiction writers. With America America, Ethan Canin has doubled down on this strategy – and he has also managed to write a fine novel that will deserve its surefire success.

The story centers on Corey Sifter, a working-class kid coming of age in upstate New York in the early 1970s. Corey takes a job on the estate of the Metareys, the richest family in the county, and soon finds himself caught up in the presidential campaign of a Henry Bonwiller, a pro-labor, anti-war senator, principled "in all the important ways." The Metarey house becomes campaign headquarters, Mr. Metarey is the principal financial backer, and Corey becomes valet and errand boy to the campaign. When a scandal hits, Corey plays witness.

Bonwiller does not exactly stand in for any of the candidates in the 1972 election – McGovern, Muskie, and Humphrey are all minor, external characters. Probably the events in the book are most directly inspired by Ted Kennedy, who did not even run that year because of the Chappaquiddick scandal. With that real-life lion of American politics now ailing, Canin's timing could not be more opportune. As a new generation's hope ascends, now is also a fine time to delve into the recent depressive history of the Democratic Party. "I had an inkling," Corey reports, "well beyond my years or understanding, that I was watching the fall of much more than just a single politician."

For those of us who will spend the next months following the twists and turns of the 2008 campaign, engaged as much by the characters involved as by our desire for change, Canin's novel makes ideal extracurricular reading. His true subject is the decline of the Democratic Party and its values in the late 20th century, and he handles the subject like a classic tragedy, from hubris to insight to catharsis.

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