Ethan Canin’s latest novel, America America, is the story of a political campaign interweaved gracefully with the stories of some of the American lives touched by it. The theme of the book, America, a nation both blessed and troubled by its history, is conveyed through a narrative of expansive range, a story that juxtaposes the personal and intimate with the impersonal and sweeping, and in the process closely examines the connective tissue between the two.
This is, if nothing else, an ambitious book. It touches an aristocratic family’s rags-to-riches beginnings in the 19th century, a chain of defining events in the politically turbulent early 1970s, and the present itself, against which these past events are reflected. Canin’s use of this well-worn technique is impeccable: the older man, given time and impetus to review and reconsider, and lacking the energy for vigorous living, recounts a story from his youth, a time imbued with dynamic change and action—and, of course, a profound string of events. This, I think—this use of time as both a frame for the events of the story and an emotional construct—is where Canin takes his biggest risk. He challenges us, here, to engage fully in the 19th century Scottish emigration and the stormy politics of the late 1960s and early 1970s, while at the same time identifying closely, in the present day, with the narrator/protagonist Corey Sifter, a modern man: a husband, father, newspaper editor, and mentor. His enticements are flowing prose and deep characterizations, both of which are compelling, but dependent in the end on the story as the final, irresistible draw.
Within each timeframe, Canin creates characters who effectively portray the many dimensions of America, what one recent presidential candidate has called “two Americas,” but what Canin shows us so clearly is actually a multi-colored tapestry, an infinite number of Americas, a unique country, in fact, for each and every one of us. The characters start with Eoghan Metarey, the first-generation immigrant who used guile and ruthlessness, rather than book learning, to amass the fortune that made later events possible. Then there is his son, Liam Metarey, the conflicted modern-day patriarch around whom the central tragedies of the story revolve. In the political middle frame of the story, the 1972 presidential campaign, there are Corey, a coming-of-age youth and protégé of Liam Metarey, the patriarch’s prescient wife June Metarey, the charismatic and fatally flawed senator and presidential candidate Henry Bonwiller, JoEllen Charney, his ill-fated mistress, the compliant yet wise columnist Glen Burrant, Corey’s loving working-class parents Grange and Anna Sifter, the next-door neighbor Eugene McGowar, and the Metarey daughters Christian and Clara. Many of these characters also play a role in the present day, but the central characters here are Corey, now a newspaper editor, his intern and mentee Trieste Millbury, and his wife, father, and Mr. McGowar. Remarkably, almost all of these characters are brought into nearly every part of the book, creating a weave of character arcs that connect with each other and with the larger arc of the story in sometimes subtle and sometimes profound ways. In two examples, Canin ties Corey’s own daughters to the unfortunate fate of JoEllen Charney, herself a daughter of loving parents (pp. 317–330), and he brings out the wisdom of the working men, Grange Sifter and Eugene McGowar, in a scene late in the book that exposes a joke on the robber baron Eoghan Metarey (pp. 434–436). In this last scene, he even uses the young Trieste Millbury as a vehicle, adding yet another strand to the weave.
The primary risk of such an ambitious timescale and range of characters, is that the story will drag, and frankly, for some people this one will. Canin’s prose style is anything but spare. I have heard him say of editing and trimming, “I just can’t do it.” He finds the writing itself so “excruciating,” he said, that he couldn’t even imagine going back through the text to revise it. (We in the audience didn’t press him on this question, so were left wondering whether his published books are all first-draft material, or if not, who it is that does the editing and trimming. A question, perhaps, for another appearance.) So if your tastes tend toward the likes of Hornby or Eggars, this book might not be for you. But if you are a person like me, who at the age of twelve sat glued to each and every hour of the televised Watergate hearings, and who regularly pores over volumes of historical nonfiction both large and small, this book will serve you as a lengthy and quiet pleasure. (And, just for the record, I also enjoy the likes of Hornby and Eggars.)