An Imperfect But Epic 'America' A young man enters a world of power and privilege when he is summoned to live on the estate of the local industrial baron in Ethan Canin's epic America America.
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An Imperfect But Epic 'America'

'America America'
America America
By Ethan Canin
Hardcover, 480 pages
Random House
List Price $27.00

Read an excerpt.

Ethan Canin is a graduate of Harvard Medical School and a faculty member of the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop. Fred Gerr hide caption

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Fred Gerr

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.

Excerpt: 'America America'

'America America' cover
Random House

Chapter 1


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.

I wouldn't have thought, in fact, that I would be the one to bring it back now, after all this time. That I would be the one to finally try to explain it. What I know of it, at least, even if that's only a part. I can only guess at the other parts. But I've been guessing at them for half my life now, and I think I've made some sense of it.

Honestly I don't know what will come of this--who will find pain in what I say and who, in a certain manner, solace. It isn't only that Senator Henry Bonwiller is dead. His death was melancholy news up here, of course, but it's not the only reason I've set out to tell this. The other part is my children. That's something I'm certain of. We have three daughters, and one of them is just past the age I was when these events took place, and I must say I feel a certain relief that nothing similar has shadowed any of their days; but I also know that you never stop worrying that it will. After all, if children don't make you see things differently--first bringing them into the world and then watching them go out into it--then God help you.

The crowd at Senator Bonwiller's funeral was even bigger than I expected. Probably six hundred people at the morning eulogy--more if you count the uninvited crowd on the sidewalk in front of St. Anne's, standing under the shade of the sycamores and fanning themselves with their newspapers. And at least a thousand at the burial, which was open to the public that afternoon at St. Gabriel's Cemetery, not too far away and not much cooler than in town. St. Gabriel's is in Islington Township, and although no other famous men are buried there, Islington Township is where Senator Bonwiller was born and where he lived until ambition moved him along: I suppose it must have been his wish that he rest there in the end. It's also where his parents and brothers lie. His wife is buried a thousand miles away, in Savannah, Georgia, with her own parents, and there was no doubt some whispering about that fact. Henry Bonwiller was a complicated man, to say the least. I knew him to a certain degree. Not well enough to know what he would have felt about the grave arrangements, but more than well enough to know he would have been happy about the crowd.

It was a Saturday in late September. A heat wave had killed lawns all across the state, and the smell of rotting apples was drifting up from the meadow. The graveside service had just ended, and we were still crowded beneath the shade of the great bur oaks, whose grand trunks rise evenly across the cemetery lawn as if by agreement with one another. There seemed to have been agreements about other things, as well. The New York Times gave the news an above-the-fold headline on page one and a three-column jump in the obituaries, but their story only included a single paragraph on Anodyne Energy and not much more on Silverton Orchards. The Boston Globe ran an editorial from the right-hand front column, under "The Country Mourns," and ended with "this is the close of a more beneficent era." But it didn't do much more with either bit of history.

I didn't cover it for The Speaker-Sentinel, because I was at the funeral for my own reasons, but I helped one of our young staff members who did, the high school intern who arrived underdressed in her own ironic way and probably had no idea of half the personages she was looking at. Senator Bonwiller was eighty-nine when he died and hadn't been in the news for almost fifteen years, but the crowd included more than a dozen United States senators, two Supreme Court justices, the governors of New York and Connecticut, and enough lawyers and judges and state representatives to fill the county jail. I also saw what looked like an entire brigade of retired state police officers, decked out in their old satin-striped parade uniforms. But so many of them were leaning on canes or sitting in wheelchairs that you might have thought Henry Bonwiller had been a small-town slip-and-fall lawyer and not a man who, if certain chips of fate had fallen certain other ways, might once have been president of the United States.

The intern from The Speaker-Sentinel was named Trieste Millbury. Trieste and I have had our share of go-arounds since her arrival at the paper, and to tell you the truth I was wishing that afternoon that I worked at a bigger outfit--perhaps one where the publisher wouldn't find himself at a funeral with the intern. But that's the way The Speaker-Sentinel is: we like to send our own people on stories, even if the wire services have us bound and tied. We're the last of the local dailies not to have sold to McClatchy or Gannett or Murdoch, and though we recently stopped publishing on Sundays we still put out a very good morning edition the other six days of the week, a paper that we write ourselves and have for more than a hundred years. I'm proud of that.

Though I suspect that it, too, is coming to an end. That's just the way it is up here in Carrol County. It's been ten years now since the hardware store had the name Delaney & Sons on it and the bakery had the name Cleary Brothers, and fifteen since the Starbucks in Carrol Center convinced the descendants of Dutch root farmers to speak Italian at the cash register. Senator Bonwiller was the one who lured IBM up here in the first place, and once IBM arrived it wasn't long before DuPont and Trane and then Siemens followed. And that was the beginning of the way things have turned out now, with our Crate & Barrel and our Lowe's and the news of an Ikea opening by spring, all the way up here in what used to be lonely country. Plenty of people are grateful to Henry Bonwiller for that. And plenty are not.

Trieste Millbury's parents, I think, are among the latter. She lives with them in the failed farmland ten miles to the north of town, in a trailer on the edge of a drained bog that was allowed to refill in the 1980s after wetlands protection legislation went through--Senator Bonwiller's doing, again. That part of the county isn't as sophisticated as some of the areas to the south, which are dotted now with horse farms and gentlemen's estates and carriage houses painted historic red. But even so, there aren't many other trailers where the Millburys live. They're educated people--Trieste's father was once a chemist for DuPont--but Trieste, I believe, is the only one of them who goes to work in the morning.

Her job at the funeral was to help our reporter. The reporter was going to write the story, and Trieste was going to write the sidebar. Pick a subject, I told her when the committal was over, anything she wanted, and if she did it well I would run it Monday morning.

"I get a byline," she said, "right, sir? Just checking."

"If it's good," I said. "Yes, you do."

The air must have been close to a hundred degrees, and we were making our way to the refreshments. My wife and my father had been at the service, too, but they'd already headed into the stone entrancehouse to escape the heat. At the table, a caterer was tearing open the wrapped bottles of spring water, and Trieste took one for each of us.

"If what I write isn't good, sir," she said, handing me one, "I wouldn't want the byline."

"I suppose that's true."

She smiled. "I can tell some of these men are famous," she went on. "But I don't know who they are."

"How can you tell they're famous then?"

"By looking at them. They're bigger than ordinary mortals."

I took a drink. "Powerful men are just like everybody else," I said. "They put on their pants one leg at a time."

She smiled again, a habit of hers and a useful quality in a reporter.

"Is that something your father used to say, sir? I think I saw him at the service, didn't I?"

"It is, as a matter of fact."

"My father says it, too." She took a sip of water. "But my mother doesn't agree. She thinks powerful men have to put them on faster."

"Trieste," I said. "Senator Bonwiller was important in my life. I'm going to want to spend some time alone here today."

"I understand, sir. You see anybody in particular I'm supposed to recognize?"

"How about the governor?" I answered, pointing into the crowd.

"That's a good start. And a whole lot of congressmen. But you're going to have to snoop around a bit on your own, Trieste. Find someone to ask. That's one of the things reporters do. More reliable than how big the people look."

"Got it. This water is nice and cold, sir, isn't it? Wakes you up." She looked at me. "But I should leave you alone now, shouldn't I?"

"Thanks, Trieste. That would be nice. And by the way," I said. "Look around. Everyone else is in a suit or a dark dress. This is a senator's funeral."

"I know," she said, moving off toward the crowd, "but this way, at least you can spot me."

Excerpted from America America by Ethan Canin. Copyright (c) 2008 by Ethan Canin. Reprinted with permission from Random House. All rights reserved.

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