The book abounds with them, in the first place, from the circumstances of its characters to the historical and societal arcs it traces, and this is evoked even at the level of the land, once exploited and later preserved, old quarries converted to recreational lakes, land where remnants of those long gone—the old Dutch in this western upstate New York setting, or the Seneca before them—remain, vestigial but obdurately there, in the present.
F. Scott Fitzgerald's famous comment that there is no second act comes from his unfinished work "The Last Tycoon," and a last tycoon figures prominently in Canin's novel, as does his dynastic forebear, an immigrant father who arrived from Scotland indentured but amassed great wealth in the robber-baron era, leaving the son to spend adulthood living in expiation of sorts. We will see archetypal American stories twice told—not just the tale of immigrant rags-to-riches-to-potential-ruination, as it unfolds, but young people trying to scale social and cultural barriers in reaction against their own benighted, even if beloved, upbringing.
Canin's narrator, meditative newspaperman Corey Sifter, is mindful of second acts in a different but vitally related sense when he contemplates his youth from a vantage point nearly 35 years on and wistfully considers the branching paths of his own children. Corey tells us bluntly that "everything you have ever done, every act you've ever had a part in, has another meaning as well, and . . . it is both greater and more terrible than the one you knew. . . . [All] one's deeds—those of honor and those of duplicity and those of veniality and those of ruin . . . live doubly."
Corey's recollections reek of that sensibility: What he witnessed as a youth has troubled him half his life, and he is turning it over once more in his mind, not so much for resolution (he has found little) as for testimony, raising more than once an admonition of philosopher Francis Bacon's: " 'If a man shall begin in certainties, he shall end in doubts.' " (Corey seems to have skipped the opening part of the process, dwelling at the end of it all along. His wife tells him he overthinks, a possibility he denies, but this is Canin's little joke: Without Corey's overthinking, there would be no novel.)
As a teenager Corey became involved with the wealthy and powerful Metarey family as it plunged into politics and tried to propel a hometown U.S. senator, Henry Bonwiller, into the White House. Corey ended up as the senator's driver on occasion, and even in the present he marvels, "My grandfather had been a miner; my father was a union tradesman; and now here I was, driving a man who could be president."
It was the primary season of the fraught election of 1972, with the Vietnam War under way, and we are treated to vignettes of Democrats Edmund Muskie, George McGovern and Hubert Humphrey as well as the fictional, unabashedly liberal, pro-labor and anti-war Bonwiller, whose candidacy was fast gathering steam. Also playing a shadowy part are the black-bag tricksters of Richard Nixon's Committee to Re-Elect the President (often abbreviated as CREEP), who were later to gain fame in the Watergate scandal.
A female campaign worker with whom Bonwiller was conducting an affair turns up dead, having died of exposure in an orchard in circumstances that remain unexplained but may involve the senator and his dark Cadillac Eldorado. Corey confesses it was only with the birth of his first daughter "that it just broke over me. That I'd been involved with something—not that I did something, but that I was involved with something—something unforgivably wrong."
The stain of guilt by association seeps softly throughout Canin's book, whether voiced by Corey's friend Christian Metarey when she says, " 'We stole this from the Seneca. . . . All this land,' " or by her father, Liam Metarey, head of the family, ever conscious of the rapaciousness of his own father's practices (among them, leaving 14 miners trapped, and five to die underground, in a Canadian mine while he stalled negotiations with a union), long before the travails of a presidential campaign that veers from its moral groundings.
Bonwiller's culpability in the campaign worker's death is assumed by many but unprovable. He denies it in a public speech of defiance and faces no legal charges. (A few parallels with reality here may call to mind the specter of Mary Jo Kopechne, the former campaign worker for Robert Kennedy who drowned in a car driven off a bridge by U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy at Chappaquiddick, Mass., in 1969.) Corey did notice the senator unusually distraught one winter morning, after which Liam set off through the snow on a tractor on an unspecified errand, troubling because the orchard where JoEllen Charney's body was found abutted the Metarey property. After decades, this still has Corey asking:
"How do each of us come to understand what is never spoken? By what constellation of gesture and avowal, by what detail of comportment or tone do we discern the dark, inobvious intent of those around us?"
Even the beneficent Liam, who underwrote most of Corey's prep school and undergraduate education, "remains a mystery to me to this day," Corey reports. Liam was kind ("Always") and honest ("Overwhelmingly") and "had lifted the weight of [his family's] fortune into the next realm of influence and station," but perhaps made a mistake in his loyalty, Corey suggests. Where a candidate must "be immune to doubt," as Bonwiller apparently was, it was not a capacity that Liam shared.
Corey's reminiscences are set off by Bonwiller's funeral and burial, which occur at the opening of "America America," although at age 89, Bonwiller had been out of the news for a decade and a half. What had brought him down was not JoEllen Charney—he was re-elected to the Senate after his foreshortened presidential bid—but later hearings over highly irregular investments from which he had profited, plus holding views that were "beginning to fall under the shadow of a new, darker mood that was spreading across the country" following Iran's seizure of hostages from the U.S. Embassy in 1979 during Jimmy Carter's presidency.
In summary description, "America America" might sound like a political allegory, but it is not, nor does constructing one seem to have been the author's intent. People rise and fall in politics, but they do so in every sphere of life, where leaving home, or having one's children leave home, or taking leave of one's parents or loves with finality are as much a part of the story as anything, and that is the case with Corey's digressive tale as well. Among its elements one will find consistent literary play, as Canin spoon-feeds us snippets of Keats (more than once quoting from "On First Looking Into Chapman's Homer") and Auden ("Musee des Beaux Arts," which mentions Breughel's painting "The Fall of Icarus" and "how everything turns away/Quite leisurely from the disaster") and Whitman (from "Leaves of Grass") and Longfellow too (from "Keramos," "All things must change/To something new, to something strange").
It is Corey's friend in adolescence, Christian Metarey, who blurts out one of the more revealing utterances in "America America." She and Corey are watching her father in conversation with Bonwiller, who is deciding whether to run for the White House. Imploring him repeatedly to watch, Christian says, " 'Look at what you're seeing!' " The fact that meaning is not implicit in viewing is the underlying context and precept of Corey's rather rambling dissection of his past. We could say that illumination—from Corey's father's becoming a heavy reader toward the end of his life, to the Christmas lighting on a huge hilltop pine tree called the Lodge Chief Marker, planted by the Seneca as a navigational aid, to repeated descriptions of various characters as glowing—is the sought-after commodity and motif at the heart of this novel.
Any exposure to Canin's other first-person narrations—the stories collected in "Emperor of the Air" or "The Palace Thief" would be a good start—will convince readers of the power he is capable of distilling economically in voice. Corey—reasonable and judicious, relaxed in tone, contemplative, frequently more tenuous than assertive in what he says—has a built-in limitation, though: While he may wear his idealism and good-heartedness on his shirt sleeve, his passion is exuded more as an intellectualized than as a deeply felt quality. In modulating his voice, that is, Canin has chosen a character whose temperance might be admirable among the living but is less engaging when encountered in literature.
This may be a function of the character's age and perspicacity; certainly Canin is aware of the constraint with which Corey speaks, for he has Corey admit, while describing an intern at his newspaper, that "the quality of mind that allows her to think so fiercely—ambition, I would call it, of an intellectual kind—is only sputteringly apparent in my own consciousness."
So, Corey can't quite cut loose like another fierce thinker, H.L. Mencken, whom you will find quoted more than once that, "Every man is his own hell," but we get a tour of purgatory, and that will have to suffice.
By Ethan Canin
Random House, 458 pages, $27