three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
36-Sept-Oct-2008
By: 
Ethan Canin
user_rating: 
0
Award Year: 
0

A-America AmericaEthan Canin, who obtained his medical degree from Harvard University, now teaches at the University of Iowa Writer’s Workshop (where he received his own MFA in 1984). He has written two acclaimed short story collections (The Palace Thief was made into the 2002 film The Emperor’s Club) and three previous novels.

The Story: A middle-aged newspaper publisher reminiscences about his boyhood connection with a rich family that changed the trajectory of his life. Corey Sifter grows up in a working-class family in a small town near Buffalo, New York. As a young teenager, he goes to work for the town’s wealthiest family, whose patriarch, Liam Metary, has strong political ties to a U.S. senator making a run for the White House. Liam takes Corey under his wing, paying for his education at a prestigious private school and giving him glimpses of the best and worst aspects of American politics. But years later, Corey’s tangential involvement in the Chappaquiddick-esque death of a young woman connected to the senator still haunts him.
Random House. 480 pages. $27. ISBN: 0679456805

Miami Herald 4 of 5 Stars
"[America America is] a marvelously ambitious book, a pointed history lesson and a timeless meditation on fate and self-determination. Canin … has unleashed all his considerable skills here, and it’s our reward that America America turns out to be his best and most affecting work." Connie Ogle

Washington Post 4 of 5 Stars
"Canin … has written before about the seductive and transformative power of people with extraordinary wealth, but never with such sensitivity. … Maybe America America presents a more intricate and mature exploration of this theme because the author no longer seems so spellbound by money. That emotional distance allows Canin to draw the rich and poor as vastly more interesting and multivalent characters." Ron Charles

Chicago Tribune 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Any exposure to Canin’s other first-person narrations—the stories collected in Emperor of the Air or The Palace Thief would be a good start—will convince readers of the power he is capable of distilling economically in voice. Corey … has a built-in limitation, though: While he may wear his idealism and good-heartedness on his shirt sleeve, his passion is exuded more as an intellectualized than as a deeply felt quality." Art Winslow

Los Angeles Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Ethan Canin’s sixth book, with its flag-waving title, America America, is a big, ambitious, old-fashioned, quintessentially American novel about politics, power, ambition, class, ethics and loyalty. … Canin loads the novel’s front half with enough ominous teasers to get us turning pages, but heavy-handed foreshadowing undercuts much of the surprise in his plot-twists." Heller McAlpin

Philadelphia Inquirer 3 of 5 Stars
"Judging by its title, scope and heft, the author intended this as a novel on the grand scale, a book that, in its specific details, would render a larger comment about the way we live. With its fluid movement back and forth in time, [America America] takes on the enormous task of sketching the moral history of this nation from the industrial era until today. It nearly succeeds." Roland Merullo

New York Times 2 of 5 Stars
"There are some wonderful, deeply affecting moments here, detailing the relationship between the narrator, Corey Sifter, and his family, but they are unfortunately submerged in a bloated, maladroit narrative that relies on clumsily withheld secrets for suspense and that encumbers the story of Corey’s coming-of-age with ponderous and unconvincing meditations on matters like noblesse oblige, the responsibilities of privilege and working-class resentment of the rich." Michiko Kakutani

Critical Summary

Canin asks important questions about wealth, power, and ambition in his latest novel, but critics’ feelings about America America depended largely on their reaction to Canin’s narrator, Corey, a passive and inexpressive figure. While the Washington Post declared confidently that "America America is Ethan Canin’s best novel," a number of other reviewers opined that Corey’s inability to feel (or communicate) any kind of passion about his life’s tale was a fatal flaw that left the reader feeling as cold as Corey himself. While many reviewers admired Canin for tackling so ambitious a project, there was also a strong sense that, despite its gorgeous writing, America America does not measure up to the many literary classics—including F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men—it evokes.