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Originally published Friday, July 18, 2008 at 12:00 AM


Book review

"America America": An epic refrain

Ethan Canin's new novel, "America America," borrows from contemporary history to script a sweeping tale of an American political dynasty and its downfall.

Special to The Seattle Times

Author appearance

Ethan Canin

The author of "America America" will discuss his book with Warren Etheredge at a "Words & Wine" gathering,

6:30 p.m. Wednesday at the W Hotel in Seattle. Tickets are $45, which includes cost of the book, appetizers and wine. For more information, contact Kim Ricketts Events (206-632-2419; email Canin will also read at 7 p.m. Thursday at

Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park. Free (206-366-3333;

"America America"

by Ethan Canin

Random House 458 pp., $27

As the U.S. presidential campaign moves to center stage, novelist Ethan Canin offers up a sprawling political epic set during an earlier campaign. "America America" is an engaging, multigenerational story that traces the meteoric rise and political unraveling of a charismatic candidate as seen through the eyes of a bright working kid swept suddenly into the campaign's inner circle.

It is 1972. The country is mired in a disastrous foreign war. An unpopular president, out of touch with shifting political tides, is touting his military policies as the only feasible solution. A powerful senator takes up the banner of peace candidate, sweeps the early primaries and seems poised to take the White House.

Parallels with the present are hard to miss.

But Canin ("The Palace Thief," "Emperor of the Air") is probing a deeper story. This hefty, meandering novel is also a coming-of-age tale. And it is an exploration of virtue and vanity, altruism and ambition, of public service and private recklessness.

While the novel's main characters are fictitious, Canin offers some unsettling insights into the last days of the liberal establishment in U.S. politics and the rise of the conservative tide that reached its high-water mark with the ascendancy of George W. Bush.

Corey Sifter, the narrator, is in high school as the novel opens. The son of working-class parents, his weekend work with his tradesman father leads to a summer job on the wealthy Metarey estate. Liam Metarey, progressive son of the ruthless industrial baron who founded the western New York town where the novel is set, takes a personal interest in the boy and pays his tuition to a prestigious private school. Metarey is also a political patron, a "kingmaker" of the old school, and Corey soon finds himself personal driver to U.S. Sen. Henry Bonwiller. Bonwiller, with Metarey's financial backing, has just launched a bid for the Democratic presidential nomination.

Bonwiller is a larger-than-life character, a charismatic power player, chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, champion of labor and social programs. So Corey is swept unwittingly into a whirlwind of fundraisers, strategy sessions and media events at the estate. As he is welcomed into the Metarey family, he becomes a perceptive observer of the interpersonal dramas, family dynamics and inside politics that propel the novel toward its inevitable conclusion.

By placing the narrative in current time (Corey is now a small-town newspaper publisher looking back on a turning point in his life), Canin provides a historical perspective on events of the early 1970s. His considerable gifts as a storyteller move the narrative along with quickening suspense and unexpected turns.

Canin seamlessly blends fiction developments with historical events. Bonwiller's primary campaign unfolds amid the release of the Pentagon Papers, Nixon opening trade with China, and Democratic front-runner Sen. Ed Muskie breaking down during a speech in New Hampshire. Here's Bonwiller watching Muskie's breakdown on NBC. "He turned to me [Corey, the narrator]. ... 'That horse been rode hard and put to bed wet. That's the end of him, son. Right there.' He ran a finger across his throat. 'Period. End of poem.' He rose and slapped Mr. Metarey on the back. 'Let's have a drink to this fine day of hunting.' "

But some appropriated history may cut too close to the bone. The central tragedy and brazen cover-up that ultimately upend Bonwiller's campaign (and the Metarey family's future), and its similarity to real-life events, may strike some readers as exceeding the bounds of decorum. The level of detail and direct historical parallel with an event that took place three years earlier reopen an old political wound.

In Canin's telling, Nixon's 1972 re-election sweep and all that followed cascades from this ugly event.

As the tragedy at the heart of this story unfolds, readers will recognize a troubling piece of America's past. If Canin's vision is accurate, it had the power to turn the tide of history.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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