Ethan Canin's "Batorsag and Szerelem," from his 1994 collection The Palace Thief and originally published in Granta, is one of the finest works of short fiction of the 20th century. A sharp, subtly wry portrait of two brothers' rivalry in the 1970s, it explodes, in its last few pages, into a devastating account of the power of family secrets and the devastation caused by AIDS in the 1990s.
Canin has received just praise for his short stories, but on the broad canvas of a longer work, the hand that draws such sure, crystalline portraits has often seemed to smudge the lines — something critics have not failed to note. Now, as if in defiance, the writer has enlarged the canvas yet again to encompass not only a longer narrative, but the entire political landscape of the country.
When he first meets Liam Metarey, young Corey Sifter is painstakingly taking care not to damage the roots of an ancient tree while repairing a sewage line on Metarey's property. It is the early 1970s, and Liam is the scion of the landed family of Saline, N.Y., seat of a lime, granite, coal and lumber empire founded by Metarey senior. Corey's father is one of the countless capable laborers who've given over their lives to the gears of that vast machine. Liam, no stranger to hard work himself, takes a liking to young Corey and, summoning him to come and work the grounds of the family estate, becomes his patron.
As the newly adopted pup of the Metareys, Corey is exposed to a family that operates on a level as heart-stopping as the flips mother June Metarey takes daily in her flights over the Metareys' land. Corey is entranced by June and Liam's daughters, Clara and Christian, whose opaque beauty and intellect confounds him, and consumed with idolatry for Liam, who not only sends him to prep school and college, but brings him, by extension, onto the world's stage when Liam bankrolls the Ted Kennedy-esque Sen. Henry Bonwiller for president.
One of the last of the dutiful Metarey servants produced by Saline, Corey, after a Chappaquiddick-like incident, becomes the family's pawn. Even decades later, forced to face the truth about Liam, Bonwiller and his own role in the tragedy, Corey realizes he's quite unable to stop protecting the family.
America America is by no means a perfect book. Preternaturally sharp, the Metareys speak mostly in clever, elliptical statements, sounding like some moldy rewrite of Salinger's Glass family. In fact, Canin, like Corey, may suffer from a bit of hero worship towards his characters. Is there an airplane engine Liam can't take apart? A cement floor Corey's father can't lay straight? A string-bean Corey's mother can't tenderly de-string? Canin makes his characters into paragons of virtue even as he seeks to emphasize their complexity. On the other hand, it's nice to breathe some irony-free air.
Towards the end, Corey's father asks him to remember all the workers in Metarey's quarries and mills: "When you get down to it ... Mr. Metarey wasn't even the one that sent you to [school]. ... I hope you haven't forgotten that they're the ones who really sent you." Sure, this sentiment could be served up in the stock speech of any presidential candidate, something tailor-made for the towns whose mines, mills and factories have long since emptied. But with the substance and breadth of Canin's epic bearing it up, we remember that it's true.
By Ethan Canin
Hardcover, 480 pages
List Price $27.00
Book Tour is a Web feature and podcast. Each week, we present leading authors of fiction and nonfiction as they read from and discuss their work.
Ethan Canin's sixth book takes place in an industrialist company town in upstate New York. America America is a "boy makes good in a compromised way" kind of novel. It's about a working-class lad whose association with powerful politicians leads to access to all kinds of capital — social as well as economic.
America America is set mostly in the early 1970s, during what Canin identifies as a darkening of the country's political landscape. The story wades into grim territory, with the mysterious death of a young woman. Canin's narrator begins with a reflection upon the tragedy, which echoes the Chappaquiddick incident in 1969:
"When you've been involved in something like this, no matter how long ago it happened, no matter how long it's been absent from the news, you're fated, nonetheless, to always search it out. To be on alert for it, somehow, every day of your life. For the small item at the back of the newspaper. For the stranger at the cocktail party or the unfamiliar letter in the mailbox. For the reckoning pause on the other end of the phone line. For the dreadful reappearance of something that, in all likelihood, is never going to return."
Canin may be one of the more intriguing graduates of the much-vaunted Iowa Writers' Workshop. He slunk out of the program in 1984 with, he says, only about 50 pages written. Still, he managed to finish his first book while in Harvard Medical School. That collection of short stories, Emperor of the Air, received dazzling reviews when it was published in 1988 and immediately transformed Canin into a literary "it" boy.
The 27-year-old dropped out of med school, traveled, returned to school and finished his medical degree, then practiced medicine for a few years. After the publication of The Palace Thief in 1994, he chose to write full time. He's now on the Iowa Writers' Workshop faculty.
This reading of America America took place in August 2008 at the Politics and Prose bookstore in Washington, D.C.
America America Recorded at Politics and Prose, Washington, D.C.
By Ethan Canin
Hardcover, 480 pages
List Price $27.00
Ethan Canin has been absent from the literary stage for seven years. The author perhaps best known for his short story collection Emperor of the Air has re-emerged with a new novel that spans class, politics, history and power. In a grand return to form, Canin's book America America weaves a complex narrative in the vein of the great American novel.
America America is the story of Corey Sifter, a working-class teenager living in New York state in 1971, who aspires for something more. In the course of the novel, Sifter, who is also the narrator, meets an ambitious politician named Henry Bonwiller — a fictionalized U.S. senator running in the 1972 presidential election.
Canin admits that while the senator's morality is suspect, Bonwiller practices what Canin calls "the politics of generosity."
"There once was this powerful, both capital and political class, who cared about supporting and affirming a solid middle class in this country," Canin tells NPR's Linda Wertheimer. But, he asks, "Are these men to be trusted?"
Bonwiller's campaign is financed by a business tycoon named Liam Metarey. The two men reach out to Sifter and guide his transformation from a blue-collar teenager to a man at ease among bluebloods.
Although the novel began as the tale of an individual who jumps social classes, Canin says, this study of "generosity" became a central question of the book. Can "avaricious politicians" truly mean well for another individual?
Canin's themes of ambition, power and corruption work in unison in this fluid narrative, and they are brought to life as Sifter reflects on his journey through America America.