The novel America America begins in 2006. Corey Sifter, a middle-aged newspaper publisher, describes attending the funeral of Henry Bonwiller, eighty-nine, a New York state senator and a resident of the small town of Saline, New York. Sifter recalls thirty-four years earlier when Bonwiller was running for the Democratic nomination for the presidency as “the best friend the working men of this country have ever had”a man who would beat Richard Nixon and bring the troops home from Vietnam. At that time, Sifter was the protégé of Liam Metarey, a wealthy businessman supporting Bonwiller’s bid for the nomination, and he was Bonwiller’s junior aide and driver during the campaign. After the funeral, Sifter, seeing a man kneel and weep at the graveside, recalls his involvement with Metarey and Bonwiller and the death of a young campaign worker that the two men had covered up and in which Sifter, perhaps innocently, played some part.
Sifter is the son of a plumber who sometimes works on Aberdeen West, the estate of Liam Metarey. As he works with his father on a plumbing job on the grounds, his conscientious effort not to injure the roots of an ancient oak that have clogged the underground pipes sparks the admiration of Metarey who offers him a position doing odd jobs on the estate.
Metarey is the descendant of Scottish migrant Eoghan Metarey, a hard-nosed, and sometimes unscrupulous, pioneer who rose from impoverished circumstances to become a mining and lumber magnate. At one point, he was blamed by union officials for the deaths of five men trapped in a collapsed mine shaft. The Metareys are almost wholly responsible for building the town of Saline and still own much of it. Liam is a milder man than his ruthless father and, perhaps feeling responsible for his father’s aggrandizing acts in the past, serves as a benevolent patriarch of the town. His decision to try to get Bonwiller, a populist friend of the workingman who has vowed to bring the troops home from Vietnam, elected president is also perhaps part of his effort to compensate for his father’s callousness.
In the novel’s outset, Sifter is a middle-aged man recalling the days when, as a sophomore in high school, he began working for Metarey and trying to justify his involvement with Metarey and Bonwiller’s cover-up of a scandal. This is a traditional bildungsroman, a coming-of-age novel, and it is also a political novel, with a message, sometimes laid on too heavy-handedly by Canin, in which the boy’s lost idealism is a reflection of a nation’s lost idealism. As the title suggests, and Canin’s sympathetic treatment of Metarey and Sifter indicate, this book intends to be an American Dream epic, a Great American Novel, in the classic sense. Perhaps for this reason, the characters, although larger than life, are two-dimensional, and the plot moves with a predictable inevitability.
Metarey is a rich man who tries to wear his wealth lightly. Although he lives in a twenty-four-room brick and stone Edwardian mansion on a huge estate covered with ancient oaks, he dresses modestly, spends little, saves much, and tries to remain in the background. His wife gets her clothes in a local shop, and his children attend public school. Although he owns his own airplane, which his wife often recklessly and sometimes drunkenly flies, he putters around in his workshop and saves parts and pieces of old machinery that he files away carefully. Perhaps because Metarey sees in Sifter a reflection of his own youthful idealism, he takes the boy under his wing, securing him a scholarship at a fancy boarding school and supporting him through college. Metarey seems to be a wise, honest man, more an inhabitant of a novel from the nineteenth century than of the twentieth. These characteristics make his fall from grace at the end of the novel all the more tragic, yet all the more predictable.
As a young man, Sifter was idealistic, hardworking, respectful, polite, and scrupulously honest, and he narrates the story from his position as the aging owner of a small-town newspaper, recalling his past...
(The entire section is 1678 words.)