Monday, May 19, 2008

intentionally left vague?

America America by Ethan Canin
Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)
Genre: fiction
Review: Perhaps the whole point of this book is that no-one can know the truth at the bottom of a scandal except the people involved, but I think that Canin makes this point in an unnecessarily confusing way. The time frame shifts from the present (more or less) to various points in Corey Sifter's association with the Metarey's, the wealthy family in town, who become his patron, sending him to private school and then helping to pay his college tuition. He is telling the story to his would-be protegee, an intern at his newspaper who reminds him in many ways of himself at that age.

The story revolves around the presidential campaign of the local liberal senator, Henry Bonwiller. Although the story is set in the 1972 election and in upstate New York rather than Massachusetts, the story is superficially that of Edward Kennedy. There is an affair, a car accident, a dead mistress. Then there is a cover-up, or a misdirection of some kind. But the truth of what actually happened is shrouded from the reader.

This story is told mainly by Sifter, who, although an insider in both the Metarey family and the Bonwiller campaign, is largely kept ignorant of the backroom politicking. The bulk of the story is told in his first-person narrative, and we know only what he knows. Occasionally the narrative shifts to the perspective of the dead mistress, but she is equally ignorant, and what actually happens doesn't become any clearer when told from her point of view. This is an effective, but frustrating technique. I wanted to know what happened!

For all that, though, this is a good book. It's well-written, and the story itself is compelling. It tells of a way of life that changes from one generation to the next and of the influence that one family can have on a whole town.

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