Saluting 'America, America'

Canin's great political novel has shades of Edward Kennedy's story

Review

August 17, 2008|By Theo Lippman Jr. | Theo Lippman Jr.,Special to the Sun

America, America By Ethan Canin Random House / 458 pages / $27

Late fall 1971. Liberal Democratic Sen. Henry Bonwiller of Upstate New York is challenging Sen. Edmund Muskie of Maine, the favorite in the race for the presidential nomination.

He enlists a friend and neighbor in the area, Liam Metarey, a very wealthy and powerful man, whose estate spreads over thousands of acres. He wants to be the king-maker for his friend. He turns his home into Bonwiller's campaign headquarters.

Bonwiller becomes the front runner, with "crescendoing victories" in several primaries. This was after he wrecked his car while drunk, killing a young woman on his campaign staff whom he was having an affair with. He left her on the ground to cover up what happened. Literally.

He kept quiet about it and continued to campaign. It appeared that he had avoided getting caught. But soon he is found out, and newspapers go after him with gusto. He denies everything. The suspicious state police could get no evidence against him. Federal agents may have, but couldn't or wouldn't act, which should be left to the reader to deal with.

Nevertheless the senator's supporters melt away. Others than the senator pay a dreadful price for what then occurs, which I also should not reveal.

Some reviewers describe America, America as a "political novel." They see Senator Bonwiller as Edward Kennedy. As a rule, political novels are not great literature. The few that are tend to be based on a real person. I've read only a couple of previous such novels that are as good as or better than America, America: All the King's Men (Huey Long) and The Gay Place (Lyndon Johnson).

Kirkus Reviews and Publishers Weekly went beyond even that. Kirkus says America, America is "Tolstoyian"; Publishers Weekly called it "a ghost of The Great Gatsby."

Most of the characters in America, America are better developed than Bonwiller. Liam Metarey, his vivacious aviatrix wife, his two daughters, even the family dog, Churchill, come alive on the page.

The best character in the novel is Metarey's handyman, Corey Sifter, the teen son of a blue-collar family. He is the reminiscent narrator of 1971 and 1972 and the aftermath through most of the novel.

From the moment he is introduced to H.L. Mencken's work by a political writer for the local newspaper who came to interview Liam Metarey in 1971, Corey begins to take an interest in politics. His chores include chauffeuring Senator Bonwiller.

By 2006, as the book ends, Corey has become the publisher of the local paper (with Mencken books at hand).

Corey's parents are also fully, lovingly described. His father is a plumber and electrician who had worked for years at various Metarey properties. His mother has misgivings about her son's closeness to the Metareys. She fears her son is coming to be closer to the Metareys than to his family.

Corey does become very close to the Metareys. Liam gets him into an elite private school and supports him there financially.

And later Corey marries one of the Metareys' daughters.

As a teen in 1971 and 1972, Corey appears to admire Senator Bonwiller. But 35 years later he recalls, "If I learned one thing over my time with Henry Bonwiller, it's that mass politics is an emotional struggle above all, a primal battle that is more charismatic and animalistic than either ethical or reason."

America, America is about change as time goes by, sometimes quickly, sometimes horribly, sometimes ironically.

Theo Lippman Jr., a former Sun editorial writer, is author of "Senator Ted Kennedy" and co-author of "Muskie."

Excerpt

"There were always shady dealings. Show me a politician who doesn't have them."

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