A dynasty shattered, a presidential campaign in ruins; a newspaper publisher revisits his youth to better understand an old scandal.
This novel of character, Canin’s first since Carry Me Across The Water (2001), is powerful and haunting, a major work. Narrator Corey Sifter is the middle-aged publisher of a regional daily in upstate New York. In 2006 he attends the funeral of the ancient Henry Bonwiller, former U.S. senator, the last of the liberal lions. After this low-key start we move back to 1971. Corey is 16, son of a plumber, a true craftsman. They live in Saline, a company town dominated by the Metareys, one of America’s great capitalist families. The original Metarey, a Scottish immigrant and ruthless coal baron, has been succeeded by his son Liam, a far kinder man, well-liked. Liam sees a disciplined worker in Corey, self-discipline being the bedrock of character, and hires him as a part-time groundskeeper, then pays his way at a prestigious boarding school as Corey begins a tentative relationship with one of Liam’s daughters. Liam is also masterminding the fiercely anti-war Bonwiller’s run for the White House; soon Bonwiller is the Democratic frontrunner, but danger lurks. A young woman has been found in the snow, intoxicated, frozen to death. Bonwiller’s name is linked to hers, though nobody knows the details. Corey, in a minor way, participates in a cover-up. Only years later, after the birth of his first daughter, does he realize he’d been involved with “something unforgivably wrong.” Canin employs with great skill Corey’s double vision: the bedazzled loyalty of the teenager, the chastened worldview of the parent. Bonwiller’s campaign implodes; the consequences for the Metareys are brutal. The novel is not flawless (Liam, the central character, proves elusive) but the detail work is quite wonderful: The rhythms of a great estate, and the dynamics of a landowning family, are captured with Tolstoyan exactitude.
It’s the journey, not the arrival, that matters, and the journey is an enthralling one.