The beginning of June heralds the arrival of the fat summer read, meant for the porch, the hammock, the beach. Ethan Canin’s America America is just such a book, the satisfying, compulsively readable saga of a northeastern coal dynasty.
When Corey Sifter, publisher of a small upstate newspaper, attends the funeral of Henry Bonwiller, New York’s version of Ted Kennedy — a famously liberal, famously long-serving U.S. senator — he is flooded with memories of the early 1970s. That was when, as a teenager, Corey — son of a hardworking local plumber — became a jack-of-all-trades on the Metarey estate, where he did everything from shovel snow to bartend at parties. The Metarey place, built from an enormous 19th-century coal fortune, is one of the last of its kind, a grand old house on rambling acreage that is still an actual working farm.
Liam Metarey serves as patron not just for Corey, whom he sends to an exclusive private school, but for the young Bonwiller, then blazing a path through the Senate and on the presidential campaign trail. Bonwiller leads in the polls until — in a direct reference to Chappaquiddick — he is caught up in a controversy over a young local woman, found frozen to death by the road in a snowstorm after a night of partying with the senator. Did Bonwiller abandon her there? Nothing is ever proven. (One wonders if Canin, given Kennedy’s current health, regrets fashioning such a morally bankrupt character in his image.) Corey, working for the Metareys and constantly pressed into Bonwiller’s service, does not understand the extent to which he himself — dazzled by the glamour — has been dragged into the complicated lies of the cover-up. That comes later, after he has married one of the Metarey daughters and had a child of his own. Only then does he begin a tentative investigation into the scandal of so long ago.
The answers, of course, have been lurking deep in his subconscious all along: Now he just has to confront them. But he’s older. He lacks the vibrancy of his boyhood, the winning combination of likability and wide-eyed small-town innocence. Back when he was 17, Corey hadn’t an inkling about the greed for power and influence that shaped Bonwiller and, to some extent, Metarey. In contrast, the older Corey — a man who knows all too well about such things — lies flat and gray on the page. In the end, though, it’s easy enough to look past the middle-aged Corey, since the sprawling, ambitious story belongs, fully, to his teenage self. And what a story it is. B+