Oh, what a paradise was lost

Ethan Canin's first novel in seven years channels varied influences. The title is taken from one of Elia Kazan's best, if most resolutely uncommercial, films. The story is a conflation of "The Great Gatsby" and "All the King's Men," with strong overtones of "The Magnificent Ambersons" (one of Canin's characters echoes Booth Tarkington by referring to "one of God's lesser known laws. The law of comeuppance.")

With those books as its antecedents, "America America" can only be a story of promise betrayed, of the intersection between private and public interests, all of it seen through the eyes of 16-year-old Corey Sifter, who watches all this come to a climax on the Metarey estate in the summer of 1972.

Corey narrates the story retrospectively, from the point of view of 2006. A man named Henry Bonwiller has just died at 89, and Corey is now the editor of a small newspaper. As the screen grows wavy, he casts his mind backward, to the time when Bonwiller was a force to be reckoned with.

Thirty-four years before, the Metarey family were, as they had always been, kingmakers in New York and national politics. Liam Metarey is distinguished by his decency, his enjoyment of physical labor that coincides with his willingness to put his family's money and prestige at the service of the public's best interests -- anti-Vietnam, pro-civil rights, pro-women.

Liam Metarey takes to Corey as more than hourly help recruited from the neighborhood. Liam brings Corey into the house, introduces him to his daughters and trusts him around political meetings. Eventually, Corey becomes a driver for Sen. Henry Bonwiller, D-N.Y., Liam's designated candidate for president.

Liam is managing Bonwiller's campaign. He is the candidate everyone believes can restore some of the respect that Nixon has been leaching away. New money takes care of itself, but Liam is bringing in the Old Money. It becomes clear that Bonwiller is hellbent for the nomination, and nothing can stop him.

Unfortunately, the senator comes complete with a full quota of human failings, because, as Corey observes, "A man who seeks such office surely must crave public acclaim as sustenance; yet, paradoxically, he surely must also be immune to doubt."

The senator drinks too much; worse, the senator has a mistress, one JoEllen Charney. When Bonwiller and JoEllen go out for a drive on a snowy night after a motel tussle, there is an accident. The mistress dies, under circumstances that remain cloudy for nearly 40 years. It is nothing conventional: She doesn't die of injuries from the accident, nor does she drown; she freezes to death.

As the Bonwiller candidacy unravels, some lives are destroyed, others begin to flower, but not the ones you might expect, and not for the reasons you might have thought.

The last time I checked, the '70s weren't a golden age for much of anything. Any era in which your primary political figure is Richard Nixon is, by definition, squalid.

But when you're past 50, the time when you were 16 is always imbued with a golden aura. Such is the innocence of Corey, such is the comprehensive range of Canin's writing, that flashy style is rigorously subsumed behind a concern for character and a search for meaning. (Canin does toss off one glittering aphorism; he speaks of witnessing the making of a politician: "How the ritual of deference precedes the auction of influence and eventually the orgy of slaughter.")

Corey is a watcher -- the reader's eyes and ears -- and because he is a decent kid grown into a decent man, you trust him.

At the core of Canin's novel is the most seductive, familiar story of Western Civilization -- the lost paradise. "Even now when I think about those days," says Corey, "and there are times I wish I could have them back, to live them again, not because of the exhilaration or wonder they held for me, but only because I think I would have taken something different from them now, with what I've learned."

One small point. We're meant to take Henry Bonwiller seriously, as a different kind of politician, but as presented he's prototypical -- a self-absorbed pol with a drinking problem and impulse control issues who believes that anything he says is important because he's the one saying it. But just because he likes to read poetry doesn't make him Lincoln, and the other characters value him far more highly than seems rational. Canin glides by the issue of whether Liam and, by extension, Corey are hero-worshippers with bad taste in heroes, or whether Bonwiller was the real deal. I wish he had been more specific.

At one point, Canin quotes a lovely passage of Whitman, chosen, I think, with intent aforethought:

"There was never any more inception, than there is now/ Nor any more youth or age, than there is now/ And will never be any more perfection -- than there is now."

"America America" isn't perfect, but it captures that lovely green light of endless possibility that so entranced Fitzgerald, and also entrances Ethan Canin, his successor in the nuanced portrayal of man's endless capacity for regret.