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An Imperfect But Epic 'America'

Ethan Canin's "Batorsag and Szerelem," from his 1994 collection The Palace Thief and originally published in Granta, is one of the finest works of short fiction of the 20th century. A sharp, subtly wry portrait of two brothers' rivalry in the 1970s, it explodes, in its last few pages, into a devastating account of the power of family secrets and the devastation caused by AIDS in the 1990s.

Canin has received just praise for his short stories, but on the broad canvas of a longer work, the hand that draws such sure, crystalline portraits has often seemed to smudge the lines — something critics have not failed to note. Now, as if in defiance, the writer has enlarged the canvas yet again to encompass not only a longer narrative, but the entire political landscape of the country.

When he first meets Liam Metarey, young Corey Sifter is painstakingly taking care not to damage the roots of an ancient tree while repairing a sewage line on Metarey's property. It is the early 1970s, and Liam is the scion of the landed family of Saline, N.Y., seat of a lime, granite, coal and lumber empire founded by Metarey senior. Corey's father is one of the countless capable laborers who've given over their lives to the gears of that vast machine. Liam, no stranger to hard work himself, takes a liking to young Corey and, summoning him to come and work the grounds of the family estate, becomes his patron.

As the newly adopted pup of the Metareys, Corey is exposed to a family that operates on a level as heart-stopping as the flips mother June Metarey takes daily in her flights over the Metareys' land. Corey is entranced by June and Liam's daughters, Clara and Christian, whose opaque beauty and intellect confounds him, and consumed with idolatry for Liam, who not only sends him to prep school and college, but brings him, by extension, onto the world's stage when Liam bankrolls the Ted Kennedy-esque Sen. Henry Bonwiller for president.

One of the last of the dutiful Metarey servants produced by Saline, Corey, after a Chappaquiddick-like incident, becomes the family's pawn. Even decades later, forced to face the truth about Liam, Bonwiller and his own role in the tragedy, Corey realizes he's quite unable to stop protecting the family.

America America is by no means a perfect book. Preternaturally sharp, the Metareys speak mostly in clever, elliptical statements, sounding like some moldy rewrite of Salinger's Glass family. In fact, Canin, like Corey, may suffer from a bit of hero worship towards his characters. Is there an airplane engine Liam can't take apart? A cement floor Corey's father can't lay straight? A string-bean Corey's mother can't tenderly de-string? Canin makes his characters into paragons of virtue even as he seeks to emphasize their complexity. On the other hand, it's nice to breathe some irony-free air.

Towards the end, Corey's father asks him to remember all the workers in Metarey's quarries and mills: "When you get down to it ... Mr. Metarey wasn't even the one that sent you to [school]. ... I hope you haven't forgotten that they're the ones who really sent you." Sure, this sentiment could be served up in the stock speech of any presidential candidate, something tailor-made for the towns whose mines, mills and factories have long since emptied. But with the substance and breadth of Canin's epic bearing it up, we remember that it's true.

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