The Duality of Politics

Ethan Canin’s Novel Explores The Political Mind

Posted July 14, 2008 at 3:59pm

Someone reading Ethan Canin’s new novel, “America America,” might recognize something familiar in the elusive character of Sen. Henry Bonwiller. The charismatic and powerful lawmaker looms throughout the book, a figure both reviled for his scandals and revered for his championing of the workingman.

But he never really comes into full focus. Perhaps that is appropriate though, because the Senator is inspired by several real-life politicians but based on none. He is a fictional character meant to illustrate the

dueling forces of ambition and service in politics.

Bonwiller could be identified as any number of notorious figures, many of them powerful men not untouched by scandal and suspicion. Canin offers a few possibilities himself: former Presidents Bill Clinton and Lyndon Johnson, former Sen. Huey Long (D-La.) or former Rep. Gary Condit (D-Calif.).

Perhaps most recognizable to readers will be a link to Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), if only because of the fictional Bonwiller’s involvement, like Kennedy, in a driving accident that results in a young woman’s death. Canin, who has never met the Senator, points out the more philosophical similarities.

Kennedy is “a man with a huge set of ambitions and triumphs and failings in his past,” he said in an interview.

No political figure, no matter how lofty his goals, is immune to temptation and corruption, and Canin lays these out in his novel. “We’ll never find [politicians] who are not susceptible to those things,” he said.

This is certainly true of Bonwiller, whose campaign for the presidency is derailed by the fatal accident. His story is more complex, however, and though readers never actually see him working on behalf of the people he claims to champion, the ardent respect they show him suggests that he has done something worth being praised for.

The 480-page book, which begins at Bonwiller’s funeral, is written through the eyes of Corey Sifter, a native of the small town of Saline, N.Y., in which the novel is set.

The story shifts from the 1970s to today, moving from the home of Sifter’s working-class parents to the elaborate estate of the powerful Metarey family for whom he worked as a young man. There are also his loyal memories of Bonwiller and the Metareys, and the skeptical observations of Sifter’s eccentric intern, Trieste Millbury, who works for the local newspaper that Sifter publishes.

Without the intervention of the powerful Liam Metarey, Sifter likely would have followed his father into a quiet life of physical labor as a union man in a small town. When Metarey hires him to work on his sprawling estate, however, Sifter is introduced to the world of power and politics, and his loyalty to the two men who showed it to him is unwavering, even toward the end of the book, as he confronts the darker side of Bonwiller’s political life.

Canin’s intent to display the “dual nature of political power,” is woven through the story. The tug of this new and more glamorous world appears to change Sifter, from his impatience with his mother’s questions about the legendary Metareys to his search for intelligent and highbrow entertainment that was not part of his upbringing.

“America, America” is an engaging piece of fiction with dense, detail-laden writing, and it’s far more thought-provoking than a typical light summer read.

There is no contrived moral conclusion, which is perhaps the reason it feels realistic. There are no particularly lovable characters, but they are all human and their personal crises, though not explicitly stated, are deeply felt.

Canin’s descriptions of Saline, the Metarey home and essentially each scene in the book suggests that he knows these places intimately.

In truth, he said, he is unfamiliar with upstate New York, which allowed him to be imaginative in creating the scenes. The attention to detail are vivid and show Canin’s skill, but at times slow the pace of the book, drawing attention away from the complex but subtle relationships of the characters.

The dueling nature Canin seeks to evoke is evident at most levels: Sifter’s straddling of his two worlds, the Metarey family’s ambitions and personal character, Bonwiller’s “sense of justice” and his political ambition, and even in the desires of JoEllen Charney, the beauty queen with whom Bonwiller is having an affair — and whose death leads to the unraveling of his presidential dreams.

It is this duality that Canin hopes readers will recognize in the book during this election season, though he says the novel is not necessarily intended to reflect the current presidential campaign.

“A reader might notice the dual nature of political power,” he said, referring to both ambition and public-mindedness. “The best we can hope for is public-mindedness married to that kind of power.”