Ethan Canin’s America America is, as its title suggests it sets out to be, a Great American Novel. It ambitiously portrays a vital part of the core of US society over several generations… indeed, to trace the process by which what was once vital becomes sclerotic and corrupt, and what was once core becomes marginal. Moreover, it shows us the dark underside of even the most refined elements of North American civilization–to demonstrate how it was always in some sense corrupt, and how violence underpins (both undermines and enables) the best of intentions. And yet Canin’s aim is not so much to denounce as to explain, to portray the inevitable ambivalences that undo and sustain American liberalism. Finally, the novel is also, simply, great: it’s a quite marvellous achievement, beautifully written, with an extraordinarily measured and thoughtful tone.
The story begins in 2006, with a funeral in small-town upstate New York. Senator Henry Bonwiller, a beacon of New England progressive politics, has died at the age of 89. An impressive crowd turns up to pay their respects, as the establishment mourns the loss of one of its own but also (as with any figure who has made their share of enemies as well as friends) to ensure that he is at last safely dead and buried. Among the crowd is Corey Sifter, middle-aged editor of the local paper, the Speaker-Sentinel, but here now for personal rather than professional reasons. Sifter’s life has, we discover, long been bound up with that of the deceased senator. So although the newspaperman initially presents himself as something of an outsider to the social elite gathered by the graveside, it soon emerges that he, least of all, is hardly untainted by the slight whiff of scandal that still surrounds the Bonwiller name.
The novel then shifts to the early 1970s when Corey, as the sixteen-year-old son of a local plumber, is called in to help fix a broken sewer on the estate of a prominent landowner, Liam Metarey. Metarey is taken by the young boy’s industriousness and desire to please, and so gradually hires him to do more and more jobs around the estate. Soon young Corey is also invited into the house itself, and not always to work. Gradually he becomes the older man’s protegé, enjoying a remarkably intimate relationship with the entire Metarey family, though always with the recognition that a vast gulf of class difference divides him from them. Frequently, this combination of intimacy and distance, with all the awkwardness that attends it, plays out in Corey’s relations with Metarey’s young daughters, Christian and Clara. Clara, particularly, likes to tease the young interloper, both to remind him of his subordinate status but also to indicate her interest in whatever he’s up to.
But Corey isn’t really up to anything particularly nefarious. He is portrayed (though we should remember that this is all from his own perspective) as a hard worker who merely likes to be liked by these people who have had so much power and influence in his community. Indeed, Sifter presents himself as rather naive, and the point of narrating his story in extended flashback is so that the middle-aged man can judge the youth he once was, not so much for his drive and ambition but more for not asking enough questions about the circles he finds himself frequenting. Everything comes to a head as Metarey decides to back a rising political star for what will turn out to be a campaign for the presidency. And so we turn to Senator Bonwiller again.
Bonwiller, it turns out, is something of a Ted Kennedy figure: well-meaning, perhaps, and voice for the unions and the working class, but tragically flawed. In an incident reminiscent of Chappaquiddick, Bonwiller’s political hopes are derailed and, more to the point for the novel’s purposes, Corey finds himself involved in the attempt to cover up the scandal. Again, it is not that the young man is calculating in his actions; more that his unwittingness is what makes him useful, and what allows him to be used. Fundamentally, the novel is telling us that neither ignorance (on Corey’s part) not good intentions (in different ways, on the parts of both Bonwiller and Metarey) are sufficient alibis. Corey finds himself at the dark heart of a political morass that brings tangible human suffering. The fact that he only realizes this later (and perhaps never fully realizes it at all) is no proof of his innocence.
It’s perhaps inevitable that a Great American Novel should be a tragedy that involves the loss of innocence, the failure of high-minded aspirations, and the slip of social masks. Here, the tragedy is threefold: it is Bonwiller’s, it is Metarey’s, and it is Corey Sifter’s. In the end, however, the Bonwiller story is mere pretext or catalyst. The real interest lies in the relation between Metarey and Sifter, as the servant comes to stand in for the patriarch’s missing son. For almost despite himself, Sifter comes to be an inheritor, both literally and figuratively. Metarey pays the the young man’s education, for instance; and ultimately (a fact that isn’t revealed until we are a long way into the narrative), Sifter also marries into the family. Sifter “makes it,” and if he never achieves quite the same position as Metarey had, this is merely because that position can no longer be filled or is no longer relevant: the big estate is sold off, and developed for suburban housing and fancy apartments. As Corey’s father says on surveying the scene, “That’s the way progress is. It’s always half criminal” (375). But of course, as Corey himself replies, it alway was half criminal: “that’s a hell of a lot of land for one family” (376). Any inheritance is mixed: it’s right that there should no longer be local oligarchs such as Liam Metarey; but the fact that they have disappeared doesn’t mean that the mark they’ve made in the American way of life is gone. It’s merely buried, a trauma lying in wait to be rediscovered by succeeding generations.
Ultimately, this is a book that’s more about history than about politics in the strict sense of the word. Or rather, it is about politics as affect, as the bid to either harness or forget deep-rooted feeling, “a primal battle that is more charismatic and animalistic than either ethical or reasoned” (394), and about history as it is constituted by affects and habits that are never fully available to consciousness. By this, Canin is referring both to the fickleness of the potential campaign donors who have to be wooed by lavish parties and also to the engrained habits and affections of ordinary people. Sifter spends the entire course of this tale trying to understand such processes of loyalty and betrayal: ultimately he himself is both the most loyal and the most traitorous of all. He feels, it’s suggested, that it’s only with a certain distance that he can sift (as his name suggests he should) through his legacy–America’s legacy–to piece together the clues of the scandal of violence at its heart. But in distancing himself from his own roots, he also loses sight of the “ingenuity of the American working class man” (436). There is here no Copernican position from which any final judgement can be made, except for the realization that we are all guilty whether we know it or not.
Sifter recognizes that in the end there is no redemption for him. And not because he has been himself bad, but because he’d “been involved in something–not that [he] did something, but that [he] was involved in something–something unforgivably wrong” (332). The only hope is for a subsequent generation: both his own daughters and a young woman reporter with who he has a rather similar relationship of mentor and protegée that he once enjoyed with the thoughtful and generous Mr Metarey. And yet it is was precisely because of such thoughtfulness and generosity that Sifter had become embroiled in the unspeakable evil at the core of the narrative. And it was precisely in order to make amends, to leave a good legacy, that Metarey had embroiled him in it. In lieu of redemption, then, even for subsequent generations, we are left merely with a few reflections, deliberately limited, homely, and simple:
that love for our children is what sustains us; that people are not what they seem; that those we hate bear some wound equal to our own; that power is desperation’s salve, and that this fact as much as any is what dooms and dooms us. That we never learn the truth. (455)
This is truly a brilliant novel, not least in the restraint that leads it only to these quiet conclusions, a restatement of “the old verities” that we will necessarily have to forget before we can re-learn them. It is, moreover, in the best sense a deeply humanistic novel: about the making and unmaking of humanity itself.