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NPR News

Ambitions, Tragedy Collide In 'America America'

Ethan Canin has been absent from the literary stage for seven years. The author perhaps best known for his short story collection Emperor of the Air has re-emerged with a new novel that spans class, politics, history and power. In a grand return to form, Canin's book America America weaves a complex narrative in the vein of the great American novel.

America America is the story of Corey Sifter, a working-class teenager living in New York state in 1971, who aspires for something more. In the course of the novel, Sifter, who is also the narrator, meets an ambitious politician named Henry Bonwiller — a fictionalized U.S. senator running in the 1972 presidential election.

Canin admits that while the senator's morality is suspect, Bonwiller practices what Canin calls "the politics of generosity."

"There once was this powerful, both capital and political class, who cared about supporting and affirming a solid middle class in this country," Canin tells NPR's Linda Wertheimer. But, he asks, "Are these men to be trusted?"

Bonwiller's campaign is financed by a business tycoon named Liam Metarey. The two men reach out to Sifter and guide his transformation from a blue-collar teenager to a man at ease among bluebloods.

Although the novel began as the tale of an individual who jumps social classes, Canin says, this study of "generosity" became a central question of the book. Can "avaricious politicians" truly mean well for another individual?

Canin's themes of ambition, power and corruption work in unison in this fluid narrative, and they are brought to life as Sifter reflects on his journey through America America.

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