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Strange Bedfellows

By (July 1, 2008) No Comment

America America

by Ethan Canin
Random House, 2008

Election year. A nation up to its armpits in an unwinnable war. Nixon. Bush. Vietnam. Iraq. Nonfiction playing ping-pong with the Nixon-Bush analogy has been spilling from publishing houses since boots hit Iraqi soil. Fiction, always the catch-up kid when it comes to putting history in its place, is just beginning to bring 9/11 to plot, never mind the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and this decade’s elections. Ethan Canin has spotted this deficit on our fiction shelves. In America America he takes a twirl around the dance floor with the Nixon-Vietnam years and casts that story’s shadow onto our current political quagmire. Joining him is a Senator, a car accident, a dead girl, and a scandal; and before the last page is turned a Believer’s faith is challenged and an Innocent might see the light. Yes, we’ve heard this all before, but Canin adds a fresh bit of polish and shine to this age-old American political tale.

Canin has a fondness for grandiose titles. His short story collection Emperor of the Air is named for a story about an aging man who tries to save his old tree from insect infestation and a neighbor with a chainsaw. His second collection The Palace Thief is named for the story of a retired boy’s schoolteacher who can’t forgive the student who cheated in school yet succeeded in life. And then there’s Canin’s novel For Kings and Planets where the main character, a reluctant dentist-in-training, expresses disappointment that teeth are numbered and not, like other parts of the human anatomy, named for kings and planets. Now we our offered America America – part lament, part plea. Canin’s titles are accompanied by a wink and nudge and speak to a pervasive theme in his fiction: the American everyman’s struggle to elevate his life beyond humble circumstances. His stories, short or long, chart infinitesimal changes in their heroes that usually leave them in steady jobs, slightly more enlightened than when we first met them. America America’s hero, Corey Sifter, middle-aged journalist and publisher, son of a union plumber, is a Canin man through and through.

Corey’s reflective voice, full of vague portent of past evil doings, opens the novel:

When you’ve been involved in something like this, no matter how long ago it happened, no matter how long it’s been absent from the news, you’re fated, nonetheless, to always search it out. To be on alert for it somehow, every day of your life.

The novel starts at the funeral of Senator Henry Bonwiller in 2006 and moves back in time to the early 1970s when Bonwiller is on the march towards a Democratic nomination for the upcoming Presidential election. Bonwiller is running on an anti-Vietnam platform and as a champion of union men. Corey is a local boy who works as handyman and go-fer for Liam Metarey, Bonwiller’s campaign manager. As Bonwiller’s campaign ramps up, so does Corey’s involvement in nearly every campaign event held at the Metarey estate – from stocking the bar, to setting up chairs, to chauffeuring members of the press and even Bonwiller himself. As the novel progresses, the frequency of the time jumps increases and new stops are added along the way, including flashbacks to Corey’s years in college, as a father, and as a caretaker to his own ailing father; one moment we are with Corey at his private boarding school, next we are at his newspaper publishing office, then back with him at the Bonwiller campaign.

Thankfully, Canin is skilled at keeping the reader grounded. He uses a similarly fragmented timeline in Carry Me Across the Water, his last and arguably best novel to date. In that book, Canin’s hero August Kleinman is also an aging male reflecting upon his life, but just as the appearance of the tiny pronoun “me” indicates a change from Canin’s usual titles, the structure marks an abandonment of Canin’s previously linear approach. The time jumps in Carry Me Across the Water mirror the jumps of Kleinman’s mind as moments in the present trigger bursts of memory.

However, though the form of these two novels may be similar, there is a narrative surety and compactness in Kleinman’s story that is markedly absently from Corey’s voice:

When August Kleinman was eighteen years old, a particularly florid eighteen—ruby-faced, wiry-armed, bursting with appetites that were as new to him as to seem the appetites of someone else entirely—he was invited to the Fordham University field house by his friend Mickey White, to watch the Fordham Rams practice football.

In contrast, Corey:

In the spring of 1971, near the end of my sophomore year in high school, I went to work for the Metarey family. It was a life that took me by such swift surprise, I now realize, that within a very period of time I’d lost track of where I’d come from. And because of Metarey’s generosity – I call it that, though I could as easily call it their peculiarity, or, as my wife used to say, their nasty sport – because of how the Metarey’s let me into their existence, I think I first took it inside myself, at the age of sixteen, that such an existence might someday be mine.

While August and Corey both reflect upon paths taken, the difference in their voices feels like the difference between a muscular athlete and a doddering paperpusher: Corey is hesitant, circumlocutive, self-correcting, and prone to qualifiers. He is the unsuspecting Innocent about to become intimate with the deeply un-innocent ways of American politics.

The most pointed signal of the absence of innocence comes in the form of a newspaper clipping about an unidentified frozen dead woman, which might as well have the headline: “Bonwiller Presidential Campaign Doomed.” The real mystery is, how did Corey miss the clues that Bonwiller was involved in foul play? Corey, present at nearly every campaign event at the Metarey estate, witnesses the symptoms of Bonwiller’s Doomed American Politician affliction first-hand: the philandering, the excessive drinking, the scenes where he alternates between manic exuberance and depressed bouts of ducking and hiding. And finally there’s the snowy winter day when Corey witnesses Bonwiller’s arrival at Metarey’s house; Bonwiller is agitated, possibly drunk. Metarey leaves the house for a while then returns and asks Cory to drive him and the Senator in the Senator’s car. Metarey and Bonwiller distract Cory while he’s driving, practically turning his head to look out the side window at a hawk. Corey crashes the car, and amazingly, the press corps pops out of the trees to take photos of Corey, the Senator, and Metarey. Years later, as Corey ruminates over these events with Trieste, he finally suspects what the reader has been able to see all along: that Metarey and Bonwiller were using Corey in their scheme to provide an alibi for the damage to Bonwiller’s car – damage caused by an earlier crash that left Bonwiller’s mistress JoEllen dead in the snow. Gullible heroes can be forgiven for falling victim to pranks, but falling victim to being an accomplice to a wrongful death? Even if Bonwiller is running on a liberal platform that makes JFK look like a Republican, it’s hard to dismiss Corey’s blindness for the sake of the greater political good. And when a character is this blind and he’s your narrator, he’s not to be trusted.

Back in the present-time of the novel, we thankfully have Trieste, the brilliant college-bound intern at Corey’s newspaper to set Corey straight and remind us that smart characters can have a place in this novel. In crisp snippets of dialogue that start turning up with increasing frequency in the narrative, Trieste questions Corey’s perspective on Bonwiller’s role in the death of JoEllen Charney and how the press manipulated the events to bring down Bonwiller’s campaign:

“They [the press] were waiting for the killing moment,” said Trieste.
“How do you mean?”
“They wanted to make sure the dagger went into the right man.” She was putting on the duster, getting ready to leave on a rainy evening.
“Oh, I see,” I said. “You’re presuming a lot of conspiracy.”
“Or not presuming enough, maybe. It should have been everywhere. Overnight.”

Even if you can forgive Corey for missing the clues in the 1970s when he was young and completely distracted by the attentions of his wealthy benefactors, the Metarey family, it’s hard to comprehend his continued blindness in 2006. He is, supposedly, a successful journalist and publisher of a local newspaper; if ever there was a profession dedicated to unearthing secrets, Corey’s in it. But he, like Bonwiller, has a fatal flaw – he’s afraid to look too closely at what he unearths:

And to this day, people occasionally ask me if during my time at the Metarey’s’ I ever met JoEllen Charney. It’s not a question I like to answer, for inevitably it leads the conversation in a direction that I don’t want it to go. So usually I tell them the literal truth, which is that I never did.

There is one last extenuating circumstance to release Corey from guilt; he is completely beholden to the Metarey family for his paychecks, his private school education, his college education, and even his future wife:

I wonder to this day why he [Liam Metarey] sent me off to Dunleavy, and then did everything else for me after that. Was it just his democratic urge? And if it was, why did he not send Christian and Clara to a similar school? …. And, of course, why had he let Andrew come home after his sophomore year? I know that Andrew had never liked school nor taken to it. Was that his reasoning? Was he merely an efficient spender of his fortune? Did Mr. Metarey somehow see scholastic potential in me, or at least drive, that he didn’t see in his own son? … But there are other possibilities, also: was he, as I sometimes wonder, trying to make me of a rank with his daughter? Or was it, as I think at other times — how could I not—was it that he was trying to separate me from her?

But for all his ponderings, Corey never seems to grasp the likelihood that a kingmaker like Metarey is largely interested in buying his loyalty against the day that Metarey needs someone to help hide the evidence of a bloody deed. Corey’s credulousness is so great that not only do we not trust him as our narrator, we don’t much respect him either.

Not enough respect is granted to the women of America America either, who, with the exception of Trieste, fall into categories: wife, mother, daughter, whore. You’d never know the seventies feminist movement was in full swing from the depiction of this Lake Erie town. In the daughter category we have Clare and Christian Metarey, each of whom is a possible love interest for Corey. However, if you’re looking either for a satisfying love story or well-developed female characters, these aren’t your girls. Corey’s mother, Mrs. Metarey, and JoEllen’s mother are stand-ins for caution signs. Before her death, Corey’s mother cautions him to stay true to Liam Metarey. In a memorable moment, Mrs. Metarey gets drunk and rages against Bonwiller, an omen showing that all is not well in the Metarey-Bonwiller alliance. And JoEllen’s wise mother cautions her daughter to gather her strength and leave Bonwiller and to always carry money for a cab. Interestingly, for a few scattered pages in the second half of the novel, JoEllen is given her own point-of-view. While it is possible these pages are meant to be read as Corey’s imaginings of what happened, it is highly unlikely; Corey seems incapable of such insights. Despite this point-of-view shift, JoEllen remains more cliché than character – the innocent girl turned Bonwiller’s whore. For the price of some nice clothes, a fur, a well-stocked bar in a well-appointed hotel room, JoEllen gives her very life for Bonwiller. In America America, women exist for men’s convenience and have little to no power of their own. The setting might be the 1970s, but the women seem to derive from an earlier, sleepier era.

Corey’s father, Grange Sifter, steps up from the shadows to bring this novel to an almost satisfying end. Because of a stroke that alters his personality from amenable to angry, he becomes the truth-teller and, in so doing, wins his son partially back from the grips of Liam Metarey. Sadly, Corey seems to have had no idea that his father saw him as lost, but at least he doesn’t mind being found. Perhaps with a little more time in his father’s hands, the Innocent will finally become the Enlightened.

It might seem that American politics would be a natural place for Canin to explore. While Russian political novels are steeped in satire, irony, and brutal metaphors about abuse and corruption, American political novels, from Mark Twain’s and Charles Dudley Warner’s The Gilded Age to Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men to Joe Klein’s Primary Colors, are predominantly about innocence lost in the struggle for power. Canin’s stories of humble but struggling everymen align quite well with the dramatic movement of American political novels. However, when treading over such well-worn ground, it’s especially difficult for an author to make his story unique. Given that there is so little mystery contained in this novel’s plot, readers need scintillating prose and a vibrant cast of characters to make them want to keep turning pages. But in America America the political scenes from the 1970s never confront more than pro forma fundraising parties at the Metarey’s. The Vietnam War is held at an epistolary distance, and the supporting cast of characters seems to fall victim to Corey’s torpor. This Canin everyman lands the stable job, but remains, for the most part, unenlightened.

Perhaps it’s unfair to compare the writings of Norman Mailer to Ethan Canin – two more polar prose opposites probably don’t exist. However, Mailer in his soon to be re-released non-fiction book, Miami and the Siege of Chicago, reported on the same historic era as Canin, but brought the cast of political characters to life in a vivid, quite fictional way. In Frank Rich’s introduction to this book, he gives us a tease of what to expect:

Mailer’s Dickensian portraiture revivifies even the half-remembered. Eugene McCarthy seemed less a presidential prospect than ‘the dean of the finest English department in the land.’ John Connally boasted ‘a thin-lipped Texas grin, a confident grin – it spoke of teeth which knew how far they could bite into every bone, pie, nipple or tit.’ Hubert Humphrey employed ‘a formal slovenliness of syntax which enabled him to shunt phrases back and forth like a switchman who locates a freight car by moving everything in the yard.’ Mayor Richard Daley looked at his worst ‘like a vastly robust peasant woman with a dirty gray silk wig’ and at his best ‘respectable enough to be coach of the Chicago Bears.

And here is a passage from America America that introduces the reader to Senator Bonwiller:

When Henry Bonwiller stopped in to eat at Morley’s Steak House, which was Saline’s version of a fine restaurant, or at Flann’s across the street, which was the town’s only pub, the union men made there way in to greet him. For Liam Metarey they might have tipped their caps through the window; and it’s safe to say that for Eoghan Metarey they would have kept right on walking. Not out of enmity but out of deference. Liam Metarey worked much of his life, I think, to compensate for that deference; and Henry Bonwiller worked to harness it. By the time I was eleven, I’d already witnessed the Senator’s shows of solidarity more than once: the men, my father included, taking off their caps to shake his hand, and now and then the Senator inviting a few of them to sit down at his table. His shining, well-pleased face glowed in the light of the bar lamps.

Mailer’s voice seems a perfect fit for a political novel that captures the essence of the Nixon-Vietnam years. Canin’s ruminative prose and polite sensibilities feel more aptly suited for a novel about the Roosevelt era. Ironically, Mailer’s descriptions grew from reports he submitted in the summer of 1968 for publication in Harper’s. Canin could have done worse than give Corey such a believable, reportorial voice as Mailer’s. Of course, such a reporter would never have been duped about the events leading to Bonwiller’s fall from grace. America America proves to have too much innocence and too little power.

Karen Vanuska lives in Half Moon Bay, CA. She was a finalist in American Literary Review’s Creative Nonfiction Contest. Her short fiction has appeared in UC Irvine’s Faultline Journal of Art and Literature. Her literary blog can be found at http://karenvanuska.livejournal.com/.

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