Tuesday, July 14, 2009

“America America”, by Ethan Canin (Bloomsbury)


Life in the shadow of one of America’s most powerful families

America America is the story of Corey Sifter, the young son of working-class parents, and his life within the powerful Metarey family. Set in the 1970s (though narrated from 2006), the novel is Corey’s story – how he grew up in a working-class household only to be assimilated into the Metarey family. Liam Metarey, the family patriarch, becomes particularly fond of Corey, giving him endless well-paid jobs around the family estate (Aberdeen West), paying for his schooling at an exclusive boarding school, and mentoring him in the ways of life, mechanics and politics. Through this contact, Corey becomes an aide to the popular Senator Henry Bonwiller, a presidential contender who enjoys the favour of Liam Metarey and the contacts (and contributions) this brings. However, events soon spin out of Corey’s control, and a dreadful accident brings Bonwiller’s ambitions to a halt.

The Metarey family are reminiscent of the Vanderbilts, Rockerfellers and other extremely wealthy and powerful families of American history: they own everything, they run everything, and they have seemingly endless resources. The Metarey family, however, treat their employees and tenants very well. Canin’s prose bring to life the privileged lives of the Metareys as they affect the world around them, but also the tragic decline in their lifestyle and the family itself. Liam and his love of mechanics and his kindness towards Corey and others; the daughters Clara and Christian (the latter Corey’s unpredictable, indecipherable love-interest); the matriarch, June, with her love of dare-devil flying and considerable eccentricities. In fact, one thing that can be said about every female character in America America is that they are all slightly eccentric, sometimes coming across as rather unhinged, perhaps intended to show the tragic decay or decline of the traditional grandees of American society.

The story is, of course, about Corey, so the portrait of the Metareys is always from his point of view, as he tries to figure out how to deal with the family’s peculiarities and extreme wealth. He is ultimately full of praise for the family, even if he finds their actions occasionally worrying or uncomfortable.

The book moves along at a steady, yet relaxed pace, always interesting and never dull. Canin has a wonderful writing style that pulls you along as he unwinds the story, sometimes switching back to 2006, as Corey lives his current life (as editor of the Speaker-Sentinel paper), and occasionally a little further in time beyond the main events – for example, from Corey’s time at college back to his boarding school days, and then returning to the present, before picking up the main thread again. There is a reason to this, and while it happens with increasing frequency as the book progresses, it is never jarring and it remains easy to follow the story.

An intimate portrait of a broad spectrum of 1970s America, this is one of the best books I’ve read in a long time. Expertly written and calmly paced, Ethan Canin has written a captivating account of a young man’s life under the influence of patronage and among the wealthy strata of American society, which he navigates while trying to carve out a place for himself in the world, all the while aware that he does not truly belong.

It is impossible not to be swept up by the story, to become completely immersed in the tale as it unfolds on the pages before you.

Essential reading, America America is one of the finest, most satisfying works of fiction I’ve read.

Also try: Curtis Sittenfeld, American Wife (2008); Joseph O’Neill, Netherland (2008); Tom Wolfe, I Am Charlotte Simmons (2006); Jesse Kellerman, The Brutal Art (2008) These books are more recommended for their quality than for being similar in style or genre.

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