By Ethan Canin
Let me say at the outset that AMERICA AMERICA is a great American novel. The book spans the nation’s economic history from the late 19th Century into the earliest 21st Century ranging from the exploitation of workers by a robber baron to the exploitation of the land by a developer.
At first I said to myself, ‘what an appropriate title, reflecting the two states of the United States: the ruling class and the aspiring class.’ But AMERICA, AMERICA is much more complicated than that: dealing with greed, presidential ambitions, economic power, personal aspirations, and most of all the concept of a fulfilled life.
The novel is set in a mythical space, mostly in the last days of a company town in upstate New York south of Buffalo and east of Lake Erie. The grandson of the robber baron still runs the town but the exploitive spirit has thinned. The scion is generous and understands the value of skilled work, while at the same time is grasping in another way--for political power. AMERICA AMERICA affirms the truism that behind every great fortune is a great crime while adding another that a great crime can undo a presidential race.
Corey Sifter, the protagonist, is from a working class family with a father whose central values are family, loyalty to friends and a deep pride in the product of his skills.
The scion of the local ruling industrial family who loves to work with own hands while at the same hungering for political position so admires Corey’s father that he provides the funds for Corey to attend a classy prep school and college. That education enables Corey to rise from the working class and even to marry the daughter of Corey’s sponsor.
But the real teacher, the shaper of Corey’s character, whether he realizes it or not, is his father who is a plumber, a union man and at the end of the trail has lived a fulfilled life.
Ethan Canin has written four novels, Blue River (1992), For Kings and Planets (1999), Carry Me Across the Water (2001), and America America (2008). I plan to read them all.