Sign up for our free newsletter
Novels about politicians and captains of industry are nearly always tragedies, and Ethan Canin doesn’t bother pretending otherwise in his new novel, America America. Right from the start we know that its central figure, Sen. Henry Bonwiller, died amid disgrace and suspicion. Instead of ruining the suspense, though, giving away the story offers Canin the freedom to tell a deeper story about national class divisions. The narrator, small-town newspaper publisher Corey Sifter, is the son of working-class parents, and as a teenager he was supported by the Metarey family, wealthy longtime landowners who covered his school tuition and gave him glimpses of their power-wielding inner circle. Whether this support constitutes simple kindness or a kind of showy ownership is the novel’s central question; the Metareys’ noblesse oblige extends to their backing of Bonwiller’s ill-fated presidential run in 1972. Sifter’s nostalgic, patrician tone nicely complicates matters—forced to choose between embracing his rougher roots and the status that was gifted to him, he shades toward the latter, even if that means he’s complicit in Bonwiller’s worst behavior. America America’s structure has a few flaws—most notably the reporting intern under Sifter, who mainly exists for him to bounce war stories off of—but its understanding of politicking, the media, and status anxiety are wholly convincing and exposing, as Canin writes, “how diligently privilege had to work to remain oblivious to its cost.” Canin discusses and signs copies of his work at 7 p.m. Monday, July 14, at Politics and Prose, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW. Free. (202) 364-1919.