by Ethan Canin
America America is a familiar story. Set in the Nixon-era 1970s, it's a kind of latter-day Great Gatsby with a Teddy Kennedy-like senator and presidential candidate named Henry Bonwiller playing the part of Gatsby. Noble intentions, hubris, overreach, girl trouble, dirty politics, unforgivable ethical lapses, and something like a family curse: it's all here, and in spades. You already know more or less what's going to happen, but what will keep you reading is a blend of queasy fascination and a fading hope that history (even fictional history) cannot keep repeating itself endlessly.
The novel's narrator and moral compass is Corey Sifter, a Nick Carraway-esque outsider, a working-class kid with more brains than money. Knowing his family lacks the resources to send him to college, Corey's father helps him land a grounds keeping job on the estate of their town's unofficial ruling family, the vastly wealthy and politically well-connected Metarey clan. The gambit works, and before long the Metarey patriarch has bankrolled the young Sifter's education and pressed him into service as a low level political operative and errand boy to Senator Bonwiller.
The story unfolds chronologically, though in retrospect from the vantage point of the narrator's middle age. News of the senator's death jars Sifter, prompting him to reexamine in detail the period when their paths crossed 35 years earlier and to discern what exactly he himself was complicit in. Like Gatsby, America America is the kind of mystery that cries out to be disclosed rather than to be solved. In other words, a tragedy. And a uniquely American tragedy at that.
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Review by Don Beistle