Random House: 466 pp., $27
It's refreshing -- and almost quaint -- to see someone try to write a Great American Novel in the 21st century. These days, writers are more apt to pursue the Great American Screenplay or the Not-So-Great American Ironic, Postmodern Fiction. But Ethan Canin's sixth book, with its flag-waving title, "America America," is a big, ambitious, old-fashioned, quintessentially American novel about politics, power, ambition, class, ethics and loyalty.
Canin made his name with the 1988 story collection "Emperor of the Air" while a Harvard Medical School student. His focus has been mainly on ordinary people confronting aspects of themselves they'd rather not see. His first novel, "Blue River" (1991), expanded on the story "American Beauty," about the ties between brothers, one brilliant but troubled, the other more conventional. His second novel, "For Kings and Planets" (1998), continued to explore ambition, contentment and the tension between creativity and practicality, this time through college friends on wildly divergent paths, one becoming a small-town dentist, the other a coke-snorting Hollywood producer.
The principal action of "America America" takes place in western New York in 1971-72, when the nation is mired in a losing war in Vietnam and President Nixon is determined to win a second term. It centers on a liberal U.S. senator's run for the Democratic presidential nomination. Sen. Henry Bonwiller of New York is a champion of the workingman with a "deep-held sense of what it was like to be excluded from the bounty of this country." He campaigns on the promise of bringing U.S. troops home.
His strongest supporter is Liam Metarey, a benevolent kingpin whose holdings, inherited from his Scottish-born father, include area coal mines, quarries, lumber mills and nearly a quarter of his county's land. Metarey is so eager to atone for his ruthless father's capitalist excesses and to get his enlisted son out of Vietnam that he ignores his candidate's flaws -- including alcohol abuse and a "perverse and churning narcissism." When Bonwiller flees the snowy scene of a drunken car crash -- abandoning 29-year-old beauty queen JoEllen Charney, with whom he's been having an extramarital affair, to die -- he and his supporters make decisions that threaten their noble aspirations and leave them morally compromised.
The novel is all the more resonant coming in another pivotal election year, when the country is again mired in an unpopular war. There also are strong parallels with Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy's 1969 accident at Chappaquiddick, in which 28-year-old secretary Mary Jo Kopechne died after an auto accident that wasn't reported for hours. (Like Kennedy, Bonwiller doesn't win his party's presidential nomination, but he carries on for decades as a great legislator, championing liberal causes for the less fortunate.)
Canin's appealing narrator, Corey Sifter, is the son of a plumber who works for Metarey and lives in company housing on what was formerly Metarey pasture. From the time he's 16, Corey works weekends and summers on the massive Metarey estate, Aberdeen West. He starts as a groundskeeper, but soon the diligent, obliging teen is bringing in newspapers and firewood, re-stocking bars, chauffeuring and acting as a sounding board to the powerful men (they're all men) he serves. He also becomes involved with one of Metarey's daughters.
Metarey takes Corey under his wing, sending him to the boarding school he attended. Corey is the first in his family to attend college. Inspired by the H.L. Mencken-quoting reporters he meets at Aberdeen West, Corey eventually becomes the publisher of a local newspaper, the Speaker-Sentinel.
Another template for Canin's novel is F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby," the consummate Great American Novel about a fractured American Dream, which also involves a car accident and its cover-up. Like Fitzgerald's narrator, Nick Carraway, Corey is a polite, astute outside observer who is forever changed by his peripheral involvement in "something unforgivably wrong."
Corey's exposure to privilege, politics and the use and abuse of power (including manipulating the press), combined with his education, is "the fulcrum I used to lift myself away from my upbringing; to finally push myself, really, by dint of education, into a social class that I at last belong to by accomplishment, even if not by wealth. I'm not proud of that and I'm not ashamed of it."
Reviewing these pivotal events 35 years later, after Bonwiller's death at 89, Corey says repeatedly that having grown children makes him see things in a different light. It becomes clear, however, that there are dishonorable aspects of the events he still can't face squarely. Even decades later, Corey's admiration for and gratitude toward Metarey bedazzle him.
Like Theodore Dreiser's "An American Tragedy," Canin's novel is about ambition run amok. And like Russell Banks' recent Adirondack novel, "The Reserve," it examines the divide between classes and features a wealthy family with alarmingly eccentric women. But despite the tragedy at its core, "America America" offers a less bitter, more optimistic picture of possibilities, becoming, on one level, a paean to disciplined workers, regardless of class.
Canin loads the novel's front half with enough ominous teasers to get us turning pages, but heavy-handed foreshadowing undercuts much of the surprise in his plot-twists. Although he unfurls his revelations gradually, this is a novel with many metaphorical guns on the mantel -- "guns" that, as Chekhov warned, you know will go off by Act III.
Among its pleasures, "America America" offers thought-provoking aperçus on journalism and politics, including Corey's debatable observation that "an undifferentiated silt-panning for truth serves the citizenry only slightly better than a crooked disregard for it." Also intriguing is his elegant summation of the making of a politician -- "how the ritual of deference precedes the auction of influence, and eventually the orgy of slaughter."
Although set at the height of the sexual and social revolution and not far from the site of the Woodstock music festival, there's barely a whisper of antiwar protest, civil unrest, free love or hard rock in these pages. Young Corey seems lifted from the 1950s -- earnest, squeaky clean, polite. The word that comes out of his mouth most frequently is "Sir."
Years later, a high school intern at the Speaker-Sentinel, whose family lives in a trailer, wields the same word to skillfully express her skepticism -- with all due respect, Sir -- at Corey's less than clear-sighted vision of the Metareys.
As this sharp young woman recognizes, Corey's story is steeped in an elegiac nostalgia for a lost innocence that never was. Great American Novel or not, "America America" is an ambitious book about ambition. Bravo to Canin for tackling the American Dream, which we're forever running off the road and then trying to resuscitate. *
Heller McAlpin reviews books for a variety of publications, including Newsday and the Boston Globe.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun