In 1971, Henry Bonwiller is near the front of the race to become the next Democratic nominee for president of the United States, and a young Corey Sifter is there to witness his rise and ultimate fall, as an aide to the money and power behind the campaign, Liam Metarey. America America is a coming-of-age story set inside a political drama in which Corey, the hard working teenage son of a tradesman in the upstate New York town of Saline, is taken under Metarey’s wing. Saline is a fictional town in which the Metarey family has built, controlled and nourished for generations – its fortune built from the family’s business in mining, lumber, oil, transportation and banking. But the Metareys have also taken good care Saline’s people and the feeling of security of having a town benefactor is built into the lives of everyone who lives in there.
The story spans thirty years, with a great deal of jumping back and forth between story lines. The book’s main story revolves around Corey, who becomes an errand boy, driver and helper during Bonwiller’s campaign. Corey is thrilled to be around the excitement of a presidential campaign. He sees and hears a great deal and, as a scandal emerges, Corey realizes he has played a part in the cover-up. Did he choose to look the other way or was Liam Metarey protecting him?
Secondary stories focus on Corey’s present-day life as a newspaper man with grown daughters and his questions about and feelings of regret over how he was involved in a scandal that changed many lives. An additional section presents Corey as a college student, just a little bit removed from the events that alter him.
Canin details Bonwiller’s campaign strategy as he makes his way through the primaries, going up against Muskie, McGovern, Wallace and the rest, with a longer-term view of how Bonwiller will campaign against Richard Nixon. Corey loves the excitement of press conferences, speeches and campaigning events which are headquartered at Metarey’s mansion in Saline. He’s a great observer and keeps his mouth shut, earning Metarey’s trust.
This book is full of Corey’s reflections, who has a bit of a self-important attitude, a characteristic that takes away from the book’s appeal. It’s also a long book, 458 pages, and full of these musings. But the story is very readable, despite its length. Some details hang, some are tied up. Some characters disappear completely, particularly Corey’s college girlfriend. Other sections are a little bit boring, especially near the end, as Corey’s elderly father takes up reading, with frequent references to philosophers and great works.
On a personal note, I had to laugh at his mention of Colgate University, in Hamilton, NY, where Corey’s college-age daughter is a student. On a visit to town, he describes the “main avenue of businesses, where the cafés and clothing stores and antiques shops were doing a brisk commerce and students and families and groups of businessmen in suits with cellphones out were filling up most of the narrow sidewalk.” Anyone who’s walked the streets of this small rural town knows how silly this description sounds! But that’s the writer’s choice to add color, I suppose.
All in all, despite being a little slow at times, a good summer read. Details about what really happened are not completely revealed until the end, giving the book momentum, and reader motivation.
Want to know more about Ethan Canin? Visit Who’s That Author? Ethan Canin.
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