America, America by Ethan Canin.
2008. 458 pages, hardcover.
I liked, but did not love, America, America. This distinction is largely due to the fact that a substantial portion of the book is about political campaigning, and that’s just not a topic that I have found interesting in fiction.
However, I don’t want to be reductionist and say that America, America is just about politics, because it certainly isn’t. Indeed, the book carries many themes, which I’ll touch on a little later.
The novel is a coming-of-age story about a teenager named Corey Sifter, whose hard-working attitude draws him to the attention of the Metarey family. Almost every town has its equivalent to the Metarey family, the family whose industry employs most of the townspeople – sort of a ‘patron’ family of the town. Corey is soon employed to help around the Metarey estate. When Mr. Metarey becomes the strategist for fictional Sen. Bonwiller’s presidential campaign, the Metarey estate becomes a hub of campaign activity.
And so the coming-of-age story is grounded in 1970’s politics. The fallibility of adults, the reality of the world – these are revealed to Corey in the events that comprise the rise and fall of Sen. Bonwiller. There are ruminations on what makes a good political leader, on the matter of legacy. Other themes include the nature of families, reflections on history and the role of journalism.
The story is told from the perspective of a much older Corey Sifter in 2006, now a newspaper publisher. This present-day narrative focuses on his mentorship of a young high school intern. Other parts of Corey’s life are also interspersed – slices from his college years, mostly.
I liked Canin’s writing. I particularly loved this one technique he used. The story is told in first-person and mostly he is telling it to us, the readers. But sometimes, a section will start off and you will think it is directed to us, and then suddenly another character will respond to the narrative. It wasn’t being told to us at all, it was being told to this other character. It was a clever stylistic choice, kind of like in movies, where you’ll think a character is speaking to someone else, but they are really speaking to themselves.
I also grew quite fond of some of the minor characters, like Corey’s mom and especially his neighbor, Mr. McGowar. Mr. McGowar can barely speak due to a health condition, so he writes on a pad of paper. Sometimes what he says is pithy and funny, sometimes it is poignant. Some of the best moments involve his character.
Overall, I’m glad I went outside of my particular topical interests and read this book.
Has anyone read it or any other work of Canin’s?
One response to “America, America by Ethan Canin”
I enjoyed the book a little more than you, it seems, but I think we can both agree on how awesome Mr. McGowar is! Here’s my full write up of America America.