[10 July 2008]
Just like its title, Ethan Canin’s ambitious new political novel America America is banal, repetitious, and twice as long as it needs to be.
The novel’s narrator is Corey Sifter, a small-town newspaper publisher and oppressively earnest man of middle age and middling intelligence who spends far too much of his own time, and the reader’s, in baffled but portentous recollection of his peripheral involvement in the cover-up of a serious crime committed by a once-promising Democratic presidential candidate in 1972.
Back in the ‘70s, the young Sifter, whose own family was of modest means, was unofficially adopted into a wealthy Kennedyesque family in possession of a vast tract of land nearby. The family’s patriarch, Liam Metarey, is helping to run the campaign of the presidential candidate, an impressive orator named Henry Bonwiller who is himself rather Kennedyesque—specifically, Ted Kennedyesque.
For those who remember or have read of the death of the young campaign worker Mary Jo Kopechne in Ted Kennedy’s car back in 1969, it isn’t hard to imagine the fate of the pretty young mistress that goes for a ride with Bonwiller on a night when both of them have consumed more scotch than they should.
But as the aptly yclept narrator obsessively sifts and re-sifts through this long-ago death, and the manner in which, in his role as a campaign gofer and Bonwiller’s chauffeur, he was half-tricked into assisting with a cover-up, and the way in which his kind and genuinely impressive benefactor, Metarey, leads that cover-up and is eventually destroyed by it, the narrative becomes wearying beyond belief.
Sifter, or rather Canin, parcels out the revelations about this 35-year-old crime at an astonishingly parsimonious pace, which is bad enough. Worse still is the self-important manner with which each new mini-revelation is either foreshadowed or reflected upon as the narrative bounces back and forth, like a Dodge Charger with a bad suspension on a forgotten back road, from the 1970s to the present day.
Consider these representative pronouncements of great speculation but negligible import from various points in the narrative:
“I believe that something passed between the two of us in those moments, some acknowledgment of station and consequence and human obligation that is impossible to explain but that still has hold of me today.”
And, “I don’t know how much this gesture ended up meaning in my life.”
And, “I’ve thought about that summer for many years now, and there will always be parts of it I don’t understand.”
And, of the tippling Senator Bonwiller, “I’ve thought about him for a number of years now, and I’m still not sure I know (what he believed.)”
And, “(t)here are several different ways you can interpret that afternoon now, but none of them leads you anywhere clear.”
And, “I don’t know, and I suppose I never will know, exactly what Liam Metarey thought of me, or what I was to him.”
And, “(a)lthough it took me years to understand this, I also think I was in some way aware of it from my first moments.”
And, “(f)or years, as it turned out, I was left to think about what he meant by this.”
And, “(m)y link with everything bigger than myself was ending. That’s what I realized at that moment.”
And, with particular pretentiousness and stunning inaptness—these words come in the very midst of Sifter’s recollection of a horrible, fiery plane crash—“(h)ow do each of us come to understand what is never spoken? By what constellation of gesture and avowal, by what detail of comportment or tone do we discern the dark, inobvious intent of those around us?”
And on, and on, and on.
Intended, apparently, to demonstrate both the young Sifter’s naivete and the current-day Sifter’s hard-won wisdom, these pronouncements instead illustrate only his enduring obliviousness. And, perhaps, the fact that a novelist should not choose as his narrator a newspaper writer who is constitutionally incapable of reaching conclusions.
The complicated, back-and-forth structure and the elementary plot that underlies it would be forgivable, or at least somewhat more forgivable, if the writing were stirring or sensuous, or if Sifter wasn’t such a self-abnegating bore, the kind of man who rarely vacations, who still remembers a moment in college when he over-watered his girlfriend’s potted ficus(!), and whose brown-bag lunch consists of “a half sandwich. Skinless chicken breast. Mustard, no mayo.”
Oh, and a pecan brownie that, needless to say, remains uneaten.
America America (or, as it unwittingly comes to define itself, America Squared) does make an effort to make some statements about politics, about the depredations of the Nixon years, and about the costs of betraying one’s principles. In fact, Canin (who has written some genuinely memorable short stories) sometimes manages a few tender observations, and even, however rarely, some figurative language, as when Sifter says, of the moments after the first few sips of alcohol, “(i)nside me, the bourbon stretched out its arms.”
This is perfect, as is the moment when he describes Walter Cronkite’s voice as an “imperturbable rumble.” This is what, or at least a big part of what, a writer is supposed to be doing—“getting it right in language,” as the poet Howard Nemerov once put it.
Canin’s narrator even achieves an uncharacteristic eloquence at times, such as when he says, “I’d witnessed the making of a politician: how the ritual of deference precedes the auction of influence, and eventually the orgy of slaughter.”
But these shining moments are utterly obliterated by the dull ones, as in the moment when Senator Bonwiller informs his not-yet-dead young mistress, in the hotel room where they just had sex, that he’s planning to run for President, and avers that:
“I’m doing this for the black man and the Latino man and the American Indian. For the working people like your father and all the other fathers who send their boys to Southeast Asia for no reason anybody can explain to them. Just out of their goodness and their faith in the country. For the unwed mother in Chicago who’s raising her sister’s kids, too, who gets by on a welfare check and five swing shifts a week at the Uniroyal plant in Gary. Those are the people I’m going to help. Those are the people I’m doing this for. Those are the ones.”
Even granting the scant possibility that Bonwiller was merely rehearsing a future oration, this is language that no human being, not even the stiffest of politicians, would ever use in intimate conversation.
As Sifter’s mastication of the past passes the 400-page mark, there is one violent and terribly sad—if heavily foreshadowed—incident that brings to a sudden stop Liam Metarey’s guilt and agitation over his role in the death of the Senator’s mistress. But, from a dramatic standpoint, it is far too little and far too late.
“That’s another thing this story is about, I suppose: how there’s no going back,” Sifter homilizes at one point, and, later on, he says, “Even now I think about those days, and there are times I wish I could have them back, to live them again,” a sentiment that no doubt will be shared by the readers who give several weeks of their lives to assiduously plowing the long and lumpy path that Canin has prepared for them.
An unwittingly useful illustration of how an author’s choice of narrative strategy—and, in particular, his nomination of a half-sandwich-eating mediocrity to narrate that story—can doom a novel to lifelessness and irrelevance, Canin’s would-be political epic is likely to elicit nothing more than an “eh”.