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America America: A Novel Hardcover – Deckle Edge, June 24, 2008

3.8 out of 5 stars 91 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Reviewed by Jerome Charyn: Ethan Canin's new novel is a powerful lament that haunts us like a latter-day ghost of The Great Gatsby. Like Gatsby, it deals with an orgiastic rupture in the American dream. If F. Scott Fitzgerald anatomized the Jazz Age and delivered its own corrupt and luscious poetry, Canin gives us a poisoned lullaby of the Nixon era. Canin's narrator, Corey Sifter, is a kind of Nick Carraway (but with working-class origins), who finds his way into the land of the rich. Corey is 16 in 1971; he lives in a little town in western New York State that used to belong to the Erie and Seneca Indians, but is now ruled by Liam Metarey, a tycoon of Scottish descent whose holdings cover a third of the county. Liam is a very complicated man. Riddled with guilt over his father's rapacious gathering of wealth, he longs, like some benevolent laird, to reverse America's politics of greed. He sets about creating his own president, Henry Bonwiller, a United States senator from New York who is a champion of the working man and wants to get America out of Vietnam. He also "adopts" Corey, the son of a plumber and sidewalk contractor who "always smelled of lime." Corey becomes a caretaker of Liam's grounds and mingles with his dysfunctional family. The Metareys, he tells us, "lived all year on their estate and we lived on land that had once been their horse pastures." Corey soon becomes involved in Bonwiller's presidential campaign. But Bonwiller is a deeply flawed candidate--a megalomaniac, a drunkard and a philanderer. He has a fling with a local beauty pageant queen, JoEllen Charney, who is a younger replica of his wife. And a little before the Iowa caucuses, JoEllen is found dead, "encased in ice in an apple orchard." Bonwiller abandoned her during a car accident, but it's never made clear how she died. The entire novel seems to take place "behind a window of warped black glass." This is the great strength of the writing. The language is often supple, can leap from impressionistic poetry to a coroner's report, and can whiplash through time, from the 1970s to 2006, when Corey has become the publisher of a small independent newspaper and is married to one of Liam's daughters. Like Nick Carraway, Corey isn't always a reliable narrator: we have to trust his own imaginings about JoEllen and the coverup surrounding her death. Yet he too lurks behind that window of black glass. His own intern, Trieste Millbury, a high school student who lives in a trailer, realizes how Corey has fallen into the myth of the Metareys and blinded himself to their own blinding power. But together Trieste and Corey form a marvelous chorus, commenting upon and reliving the splintered action of this splendid novel.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Bookmarks Magazine

Canin asks important questions about wealth, power, and ambition in his latest novel, but critics' feelings about America America depended largely on their reaction to Canin's narrator, Corey, a passive and inexpressive figure. While the Washington Post declared confidently that "America America is Ethan Canin's best novel," a number of other reviewers opined that Corey's inability to feel (or communicate) any kind of passion about his life's tale was a fatal flaw that left the reader feeling as cold as Corey himself. While many reviewers admired Canin for tackling so ambitious a project, there was also a strong sense that, despite its gorgeous writing, America America does not measure up to the many literary classics--including F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby and Robert Penn Warren's All the King's Men--it evokes.
Copyright © 2004 Phillips & Nelson Media, Inc.

This Book Is Bound with "Deckle Edge" Paper
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 458 pages
  • Publisher: Random House; 1 edition (June 24, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0679456805
  • ISBN-13: 978-0679456803
  • Product Dimensions: 6.6 x 1.4 x 9.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.8 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (91 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,163,781 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By T. Slaven VINE VOICE on July 8, 2008
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
It is no accident that the author of this novel is a faculty member of the Iowa Writers' Workshop. America America is interesting in structure and style.

There are three elliptical story lines. All are narrated by Corey Sifter, a native of a small town in Western New York. One ellipse deals with Corey's working class youth in the early 1970s and his gradual absorption as family retainer to the Metareys, the local gentry. The second ellipse concerns Corey's adolescence and young adulthood as he breaks away from his small town roots. The third, set in 2006, involves Corey's adult life as a newspaper publisher resettled in his old hometown, reflecting on events of the past. The points at which these three ellipses intersect form the center of the story: the rise and the mystery surrounding the fall of a hometown politician who aspires to - and nearly does -- capture the 1972 Democratic Party nomination for President.

This structural device gives Corey the freedom to move backward and forward in time and to speak with mixed voices: naïve and trusting teen, battle-scarred political veteran, mentoring journalist. We see his world as it was and as it has become, capturing the many nuances of the transition from twentieth century to the 21st. The triple narrative device, and the resultant shift from one perspective to another, also gives the author the opportunity to color in his portrait of the times one bit at a time, filling in his outlines and illuminating his narrative with unexpected strokes until the whole picture emerges on the page.

So what's the story about? It's about the presidential campaign, passingly. It's about work and ambition. It's about loyalty, to place and to person.
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Format: Hardcover
A novel about politics, small towns, family, and the inner-workings of all those things.

I am reminded of a blend between "All the King's Men" and "Brideshead Revisited". I am also reminded of the present.

The time is the early 1970s. There is a presidential election. People are tired of the U.S.'s presence in Vietnam. On the scene is Henry Bonwiller, a charismatic liberal who becomes a frontman for the democratic nomination. In Bonwiller, we see a political stooge, a mouthpiece of the smarter and purer-of-heart liberal capitalist Liam Metarey, who is Bonwiller's campaign manager. Bonwiller doesn't get the nomination: there is a tragedy, some gross errors of judgment. There are suggestions of the all too common missteps of high profile politicians over the last couple generations. The question is asked: what really happened. Who played what part in the events? Who was changed by events and how?

The message of hope and change during a time of profound societal disenchantment rings eerily familiar during our present election-time. The inner-workings of the political machine; the "right" person at the right time, the ebb and flow of support and media coverage: all of it fickle and haphazard and almost accidental. But inside that complex machinery are good, if imperfect, well-meaning people.

Narrated in first-person by Corey Sifter, now a newspaper publisher, but during Bonwillers presidential run, he was a young man of modest means, employed by the Metarey family, and an unwitting witness to an unfolding of a uniquely American drama.

I enjoyed the characters, the action, the story's momentum. Though it forced me to pay attention, I even liked the chronological shifts, the slow unfolding of the backstory, the stories of the lives of the people, another kind of complex machinery.
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Format: Hardcover
In a 2005 Washington Monthly essay entitled "Why Americans Can't Write Political Fiction," Christopher Lehmann laments the dearth of enduring works of literature that have as their subject democratic politics --- what he calls "the country's national epic." Robert Penn Warren's classic ALL THE KING'S MEN is likely the first that comes to mind, and for some the short stories and novels (THE CONGRESSMAN WHO LOVED FLAUBERT and ECHO HOUSE among the most noteworthy) of the grossly underappreciated Ward Just may follow close behind, and yet it's hardly a long list. In his latest novel, Ethan Canin takes a grab for this elusive brass ring. And while he doesn't quite attain it, he nonetheless has produced an admirable and appealing work.

Set in the small western New York town of Saline, AMERICA AMERICA weaves together two main threads: the story of Henry Bonwiller, a liberal senator from New York, who pursues the Democratic presidential nomination in 1972, only to be undone by his own arrogance and moral blindness, and the coming of age of Corey Sifter, a local teenager whose circumstance brings him into the orbit of Bonwiller's bright political sun.

Corey, the novel's narrator, is now the middle-aged publisher of the local newspaper viewing the story's principal events from a distance of 35 years, shortly after Bonwiller has died, his political career a distant memory. Corey is the only child of a plumber and homemaker, and in 1971, at age 16, he is hired to work part-time at Aberdeen West, the estate of the Metarey family, whose wealth helped to build the town's economy and whose benevolence now sustains it. Corey's arrival at the estate coincides with Bonwiller's decision to run for president, and the young man becomes a bystander as the campaign unfolds.
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