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Writer Ethan Canin Tackles The American Dream

Book Tour is a Web feature and podcast. Each week, we present leading authors of fiction and nonfiction as they read from and discuss their work.

Ethan Canin's sixth book takes place in an industrialist company town in upstate New York. America America is a "boy makes good in a compromised way" kind of novel. It's about a working-class lad whose association with powerful politicians leads to access to all kinds of capital — social as well as economic.

America America is set mostly in the early 1970s, during what Canin identifies as a darkening of the country's political landscape. The story wades into grim territory, with the mysterious death of a young woman. Canin's narrator begins with a reflection upon the tragedy, which echoes the Chappaquiddick incident in 1969:

"When you've been involved in something like this, no matter how long ago it happened, no matter how long it's been absent from the news, you're fated, nonetheless, to always search it out. To be on alert for it, somehow, every day of your life. For the small item at the back of the newspaper. For the stranger at the cocktail party or the unfamiliar letter in the mailbox. For the reckoning pause on the other end of the phone line. For the dreadful reappearance of something that, in all likelihood, is never going to return."

Canin may be one of the more intriguing graduates of the much-vaunted Iowa Writers' Workshop. He slunk out of the program in 1984 with, he says, only about 50 pages written. Still, he managed to finish his first book while in Harvard Medical School. That collection of short stories, Emperor of the Air, received dazzling reviews when it was published in 1988 and immediately transformed Canin into a literary "it" boy.

The 27-year-old dropped out of med school, traveled, returned to school and finished his medical degree, then practiced medicine for a few years. After the publication of The Palace Thief in 1994, he chose to write full time. He's now on the Iowa Writers' Workshop faculty.

This reading of America America took place in August 2008 at the Politics and Prose bookstore in Washington, D.C.

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