Canin and the promised land
“How did this person’s life turn out the way it did?”
This is the question that interests Ethan Canin as a writer. In fact, he once said in an interview that it was the only question that interested him, which is why he stopped writing short fiction—there simply wasn’t enough space in which to give a full answer.
Many of his best ‘life stories’ depict the coming of age of fundamentally decent young men: William Messerman of “Batorsag and Szerelem” (The Palace Thief); August Kleinman (Carry Me Across the Water); Orno Tarcher (For Kings and Planets); and now, Corey Sifter (America America). This time, however, Canin isn’t just asking how a man’s life turned out the way it did; he’s applying the same question to our country. It is America itself that comes of age in this haunting and elegiac fourth novel, and the transition is a sorrowful one.
Nixon is in his first term and Vietnam is tearing the nation apart when Corey—the bright, earnest son of working- class parents—accepts a job as a hand at Aberdeen West, the grand estate of the Metarey family. Industrialists and philanthropists in the Carnegie mold, they own the small town of Saline, N.Y., and everything in it. The Metareys are benevolent rulers, revered by the townspeople who work in their lumber mills, limestone quarries and factories. As Corey, narrating from the vantage point of middle age, says:
It might seem quaint today that a whole town thought of these men the way we did then—as benefactors and guardians, and even, if needed, as saviors. But that was what the town of Saline was like when I was growing up. My eyes are clearer now … but I still believe that Liam Metarey was a generous, civic-minded, and altruistic patron of the whole community.
Class and its obligations are at the heart of America America. So, too, is the corrupt- ing nature of power.
Liam Metarey is a kingmaker who puts his considerable fortune and influence behind the presidential campaign of another popular local son, liberal New York Senator Henry Bonwiller. Young Corey hero-worships both men. As he is drawn slowly away from his own humble origins into their rarefied world, he finds himself seduced by its power, privilege and the limitless possibilities it seems to offer. Before long, the Metareys are inviting him to join them for social occasions, and he forms a romantic attachment to Christian, the elder of the two Metarey daughters. When Mr. Metarey arranges for Corey to attend the elite Dunleavy School for his last two years of high school, he knows he is leaving his old life behind forever.
He returns home on holidays and weekends to work as an aide to the Bonwiller campaign, which Liam Metarey is directing from Aberdeen West. As Vietnam drags on and the other candidates stumble, the Senator’s chances of becoming the Democratic nominee seem increasingly certain, and Corey is caught up in the excitement of being in Bonwiller’s orbit. But then the Senator is implicated in the suspicious death of a young woman, and Corey endures some losses and experiences of his own that force him to confront complex truths about the two men he idolizes, and about his own nature, as well.
The adult Corey—now 50 and the publisher of a local newspaper—unspools the events of his past for us with a mixture of longing, rue and painful honesty. The opening scene takes place at Senator Bonwiller’s burial, 34 years after his run for the presidency was derailed by scandal and tragedy. We know from the beginning how the story is going to end; it’s the how and why that keep us turning the pages—and the way the story is told, of course. Canin’s prose has a plainspoken eloquence as rich in nuance and insight as it is in detail. Consider this bittersweet passage in which Corey speaks of his eldest daughter:
As a little girl … she used to wake before dawn, pad over to the room where my wife and I slept, and wake me by tickling my face with my socks—which she insisted I leave every night on the table next to the headboard. Then she would hand me my shoes. With giggling delight she would watch as I put them on, as though they were her own marvelous invention. My loss on her wedding day was simply that we had traveled so far in the world that I was now ready to give her away without tears.
Canin masterfully interweaves the story of Corey’s past with that of his present, which centers on relationships with his aging father, his grown daughters and a promising young intern at the newspaper. Still, Corey’s relentless introspection can get tiresome, especially toward the end, when he reiterates conclusions he has already reached and states truths we could have gleaned on our own without his elbowing us in the ribs. But this is a minor flaw in an otherwise superb novel that beautifully illustrates the fundamental unknowability of our loved ones.
All of Canin’s stories are deeply personal; America America is also deeply political. There is a strong, steady current of longing for a more decent age, when responsibility came with privilege; when politicians wielded their power in service of the weak and the poor; when journalists reported facts, not lies and hearsay; when America didn’t raze its forests to make strip malls; and, frankly, when liberals were in charge. Canin is no naif; he’s not suggesting that some mythical ‘back when’ was perfect (indeed, he is at pains to show the opposite).
What he’s saying—and he somehow manages to do so without being corny or heavy-handed—is that we still have that capacity as individuals, and as a nation, to stand together, embrace hope and peace and truth, and fight for the ideals that made America great.
Hmm. Now, where else have I heard that lately?