Is there a more gooily satisfying read for a political junky than an insider tell-all? What could be more enticing than an opportunity to read the stains on the dirty laundry like tea leaves for validation of a pet theory?
If former White House press secretary Scott McLellan’s memoir offers too much in the way of backstabbing, try Ethan Canin’s new novel, “America America.” It’s intelligently observed, elegantly written, and no real politicians were harmed in the making of this book. In 2006, a small-town newspaper publisher attends the state funeral of former senator and one-time presidential candidate Henry Bonwiller. Corey Sifter, however, isn’t there to cover the funeral, but to say goodbye to the lost hopes of an era.
Of course, “In towns like this, there’s always plenty to miss about the old times,” Corey says, playing down the loss. “In any case, I’m at the age when a wistful melancholy is a rather pleasant way to spend an afternoon.”
In 1971, when Senator Bonwiller seemed the best chance to unseat President Nixon, Sifter was a teenager working odd jobs on the estate of Liam Metarey, wealthy scion of a robber baron and a man determined to send Bonwiller to the White House. Eventually Corey becomes a campaign aide, sometime driver for Bonwiller, and naive witness to the crime that causes both men’s downfall. “It might seem quaint today that a whole town thought of these men the way we did then — as benefactors and guardians, and, even, if needed, as saviors. But that was what the town of Saline was like when I was growing up.”
Canin jumps back and forth through the decades as the now middle-aged Corey reflects back on how the Metareys dazzled him with their largesse.
“America America” is much more than a novel about politics. It’s both a coming-of-age story and a melancholy look back at a small town and a time when cynicism about politicians and journalists hadn’t yet become accepted shorthand. It’s a perfect story for an election year, but one that will be read long after November.