by Ethan Canin
From here forward, if I was to make something of my days in this place, I would have to lift myself. I turned and walked farther. The paths glittered with ice.
- Ethan Canin, America America, p 198
America America, the novel by Ethan Canin, is an immensely readable saga of a young man's life in middle America. That his life intersected with that of a renowned Senator from his state is part of the story that Canin tells, but not the most important part. In fact the political narrative while interesting may diminish the coming of age story about Corey Sifter, his family, his home town and his mentor, Liam Metarey. The narrator, Corey, is an examplar of the old-fashioned Puritan work ethic. He demonstrates this both in his physical work at home and for the Metareys; and again in his studies at the private school which he attends, with the support of his mentor, as he uses his love of reading and dedication to study as a way to overcome his discomfort in a school where most students are from backgrounds completely different from his own. His mentor liked to say to him, "work will set you free" (p 401). It seems that every small town has a family like the Metareys; bigger than life and more powerful than most others in town. I know my own small town home did. That was part of what made this book a comfortable, compelling read for me.
The novel is both written and structured well, narrated by an interesting first person who knows enough of the town secrets to keep you interested, but not all, and who has an unwillingness to share all that he does know. What is the right thing to do when your mentor's family overreaches? Do you forgo their largesse or do you look the other way and try to pretend that everything is all right? We find the narrator musing, "Liam Metarey remains a mystery to me to this day. I knew him for what he seemed to be in the eyes of a sixteen year-old boy . . . In retrospect I understood almost nothing."(p 427)
The author sometimes, however briefly, strikes notes of hubris in his assumptions about what is good for America, but because this is fiction the reader can forgive him and remember that real world politics is never as idealitically pure as it may be portrayed by novelists with "rose-colored" glasses. In spite of this I truly enjoyed this book for most its sentiments and for those passages that betrayed an honesty and love for an America that was and, hopefully, may not yet be lost.