It's a fact of American culture that the public's desire to elevate celebrities to the heavens is only matched by its eagerness to see them dragged back down. Partly it's the soap-opera drama, partly it's the schadenfreude, but the Icarus factor has long been an accepted cost of fame of any sort. And it's most damaging in politics, where candidates are required to appeal to their constituents' most fervent dreams; the more personal the connection a potential demagogue makes with the voters, the stronger the sense of betrayal when a great hope turns out to be just as weak as the next guy. In America America, novelist Ethan Canin describes the rise and fall of one bright star at a time when the country needed him the most.
America is narrated by Corey Sifter, an outsider with the chance to observe that star's collapse. Now a newspaper publisher in his 50s, Corey grew up in Saline, a New England town with its very own royalty in the form of the wealthy Metarey family. Corey grows up with working-class parents, but his decorum attracts the attention of patriarch Liam Metarey. He brings Corey into a world of money and influence, including the presidential campaign of Senator Henry Bonwiller, a prominent Democrat whose opposition to the Vietnam War during the height of Nixon's power provides a rallying point for the country's concerned liberals. Henry seems like a shoo-in for office, but his willingness to put those closest to him in harm's way creates a problem that not even Liam can conceal forever.
America is a well-crafted book. It's also tasteful, even-handed, and dependable. Unfortunately, the great truths it seeks to impart are decidedly old news. Reminiscent of the prestige pictures that pop up in theaters around awards time, the novel confirms what its audience already knows while reassuring them that life, somehow, goes on. Corey and the cast of characters around him are engaging, and his relationships with the Metarey family feel real enough. It's when Canin pulls back to try and interpret their choices that the story loses its force.