A solid political novel in a time of real political change, Ethan Canin’s (The Palace Thief and Carry Me Across the Water) new book, America America [Random House], is a story about the two sides of ambition. On one hand, ambition drives us to excel and succeed, while on the other, it can acquaint us with those for whom affluence and privilege is a birthright, and is taken for granted. Canin’s simple, yet eloquent writing reminds us that, through it all: money, power, and national attention, a small thing done well is what America is really about:
“But my father studied every night in that tiny bedroom, and by the fall of my first year of elementary school he had earned himself a plumbing and pipe-fitting license. From the time I was old enough to care, that was what he was: a plumber. He joined a union, too, in the days when there was plenty of work for a union man. In our neighborhood, plumber was a high-ranking job—higher than what he’d been doing, certainly, and higher than his own father had ever reached” (20).
America America is the story of Corey Sifter, the son of a plumber in upstate New York, who gets connected with the town’s wealthy, founding family, the Metareys. While working for them, he comes to know Senator Henry Bonwiller, who launches a campaign to run for president in 1971. The campaign becomes the backdrop for the novel, and Sifter follows it intently as he moves on to a prestigious prep school (thanks to the Metareys), and in and away from the Metareys’ family circle.
The novel jumps back and forth between 2006 and 1971, doing so seamlessly and often with nothing more than a page break. Canin’s specificity and carefully placed details bring the reader into the world of this novel very quickly, and the voice of the narrator, experienced and unpretentious, retains us for the length of these 450 pages. The characters, for the most part, are well drawn and original, making it easy for the reader to invest themselves in these “people” and to actually care what happens to them.
When I said that “for the most part” the characters were well drawn, I was talking about one character in particular, whose existence in this otherwise fully-engaging book seemed like a device to show that Sifter has come “full circle,” for lack of a better term. My argument is that the situation at hand and Sifter’s reflections on it show that turn well enough. At the same time, however, I am not on the faculty of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop (like Canin). Maybe they know something that I don’t.
In spite of that, America America is a great read, and I’d have to agree with Richard Russo that the novel is as “important a work of fiction as we’re likely to get this year.” It is the right book at the right time, one that gets to the meat and potatoes of an American ideal (without waxing poetic): it’s not where we come from that matters, or where we end up, but what we learn along the way.