Release date: 06/01/2008
Reviewed by Jerome Charyn
Ethan Canin's new novel is a powerful lament that haunts us like a latter-day ghost of The Great Gatsby . Like Gatsby, it deals with an orgiastic rupture in the American dream. If F. Scott Fitzgerald anatomized the Jazz Age and delivered its own corrupt and luscious poetry, Canin gives us a poisoned lullaby of the Nixon era. Canin's narrator, Corey Sifter, is a kind of Nick Carraway (but with working-class origins), who finds his way into the land of the rich. Corey is 16 in 1971; he lives in a little town in western New York State that used to belong to the Erie and Seneca Indians, but is now ruled by Liam Metarey, a tycoon of Scottish descent whose holdings cover a third of the county.
Liam is a very complicated man. Riddled with guilt over his father's rapacious gathering of wealth, he longs, like some benevolent laird, to reverse America's politics of greed. He sets about creating his own president, Henry Bonwiller, a United States senator from New York who is a champion of the working man and wants to get America out of Vietnam. He also “adopts” Corey, the son of a plumber and sidewalk contractor who “always smelled of lime.” Corey becomes a caretaker of Liam's grounds and mingles with his dysfunctional family. The Metareys, he tells us, “lived all year on their estate and we lived on land that had once been their horse pastures.”
Corey soon becomes involved in Bonwiller's presidential campaign. But Bonwiller is a deeply flawed candidate—a megalomaniac, a drunkard and a philanderer. He has a fling with a local beauty pageant queen, JoEllen Charney, who is a younger replica of his wife. And a little before the Iowa caucuses, JoEllen is found dead, “encased in ice in an apple orchard.” Bonwiller abandoned her during a car accident, but it's never made clear how she died. The entire novel seems to take place “behind a window of warped black glass.”
This is the great strength of the writing. The language is often supple, can leap from impressionistic poetry to a coroner's report, and can whiplash through time, from the 1970s to 2006, when Corey has become the publisher of a small independent newspaper and is married to one of Liam's daughters. Like Nick Carraway, Corey isn't always a reliable narrator: we have to trust his own imaginings about JoEllen and the coverup surrounding her death. Yet he too lurks behind that window of black glass. His own intern, Trieste Millbury, a high school student who lives in a trailer, realizes how Corey has fallen into the myth of the Metareys and blinded himself to their own blinding power. But together Trieste and Corey form a marvelous chorus, commenting upon and reliving the splintered action of this splendid novel.
Jerome Charyn's most recent novel, Johnny One-Eye: A Tale of the American Revolution, was published by Norton.