Tuesday, June 24, 2008

America America by Ethan Canin

Reviewed for LibraryThing.com "Early Reviewer Program" Publication scheduled for July 2008.

This is a fine novel, and a wonderful read. I had no trouble finishing it in two days. Not because I couldn’t put it down – I did frequently for a variety of reasons – but because I wanted to know what would happen. Much of what I expected failed to materialize, and I was, most often, pleased – I enjoy being misled on occasions.

But it is not a great novel, especially when I compare it to another bildungsroman I read at the beginning of this year: Richard Russo’s Bridge of Sighs. Except for the politics, the novels do share some similarities of plot. A small town, hard-working, middle class people, with children who aspire to something better. However, America has a feel of ordinariness of language.

This is a kind of All the Kings Men told through the eyes of a hard-working, intelligent young man, Corey Sifter, who is taken under the wing of Liam Metarey, a wealthy land owner in Western New York in the late 60s and early 70s. It also serves as an allegory of political elections since Nixon won in 1968.

Liam is the patriarch of a family with mining, railroad, and timber interests. He is not an ordinary capitalist, because he takes care of all his employees and their families even when times are hard. He becomes politically connected, and spearheads the campaign of a Senator from New York in a bid to unseat Richard Nixon in 1972.

Henry Bonwiller was too good to be true as a candidate. He had a pristine voting record for the working people of his state and on ending the Viet Nam War. He was tripped up by his own foibles and predilections for pleasure, which he placed above the importance of his campaign. He was, in fact, too good to be true.

All the corruption and evil of those days before Watergate came back to me, and I began making comparisons with Ted Kennedy, Hubert Humphrey, George McGovern, Ed Muskie, Bill Clinton, and now, Barack Obama. We have been so many times disappointed in our leaders over the past 50 years or so, because they are human, and they do have faults, which this country seems unable to abide in its leaders. I can only hope that the next few years will not turn out as this novel does. When we invest hope in a candidate, we are hoping for a better future. When they let us down, the crash is horrific. Maybe this time will be better.

Canin has put together a fine, complicated story, but some of the characters seem unnecessarily flat. Some characters came and went, but left an important presence behind. I wanted to know more about them. Some of the characters, even though crucial to the story, were also pretty vague. The surprise of Corey’s wife at the end was pretty obvious, and almost a cliché.

But I still highly recommend America America. Maybe I am still in the clouds with Malouf. 4 stars

--Chiron, 6/24/08

1 comment:

Gilion at Rose City Reader said...

I also reviewed this book as part of the LT Early Review program. My review is here, if you want to compare.

It looks like we enjoy the same types of books -- I will check back for more reviews. I'm also an Updike fan, particularly of his Rabbit novels. I just finished Terrorist, which I thought was very good.