Two new novels tackle broken lives and self-destruction

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We seldom know why books are published when they are. A new novel by Andre Dubus III, anointed by Oprah Winfrey and Hollywood for his 1999 "House of Sand and Fog," would seem to be a "big" fall release.

Ethan Canin, meantime, has completed his first novel since "Carry Me Across the Water" in 2001, an event worthy of a prime fall publication date.


"America, America"
By Ethan Canin
Random House ($27)
"The Garden of Last Days"
By Andre Dubus III
Norton ($24.95)

Yet both of these serious heavyweights have appeared this month, even though they're hardly fluffy summer reading.

Both are somber examinations of American history -- Canin with a Ted Kennedy-kind of presidential hopeful and Dubus with his re-creation of a Sept. 11 hijacker spending his final days at a Florida strip club.

And they are long: Dubus' "The Garden of Last Days" at 535 pages, Canin's "America, America" at 458; and Dubus has said he had to work very hard to trim his manuscript to that length.

It's not their length that makes these new novels a workout, but their failure to be transcendent works of fiction.

Canin's thesis is that politics American-style exacts a terrible toll on the soul, particularly of families caught up in the business. The characters, however, lack complexity, particularly the central figure, U.S. Sen. Henry Bonwiller, and the narrator, Corey Sifter, who has a front-row seat to the action.

Where Canin is vague and offhanded, Dubus is overwrought, almost grimly intense in his portrayals of people who inhabit a commonplace world of tight money, indifference, anger and lust.

There's a stereotypical quality to his quartet of players from stripper and single mother April to Bassam, the young, uneducated Saudi zealot who finds her irresistible, despite his religious bans on sex.

It's clear both writers saw novelistic possibilities in the real events. Kennedy's fall from grace is well known, but the hijackers' lives are still clouded.

Several spent time in Florida and visited strip clubs. Perhaps they used the services of a young American woman, and what, wondered Dubus, would she look like? (He uses fictitious names for the terrorists.)

What also attracts Dubus is the down-low setting of drunken guys, cynical sex workers and their tough bosses. He understands how some men believe the fantasy, certain their $20 bills buy more than a look-see.

AJ is that kind of guy, a garden-variety redneck with the perquisite pickup and PFA order for slapping around his wife in their concrete-block dump. When he touches a dancer at the Puma Club because he thinks she likes him, bouncer Lennie breaks his arm and tosses him out.

That event touches off the minimal suspense of the thin plot, set in motion when April's elderly baby sitter is hospitalized.

Rather than take the night off, the dancer brings 3-year-old Franny to the Puma, but she's monopolized in a private session by Bassam, who's flush with al-Qaida's blood money and blows it on a peep show.

Of course, Franny wanders outside where she's scooped up by AJ, lonesome for his son whom he's not allowed to visit.

The two bounce along dark Florida roads in the pickup, April panics when her kid is missing, and Lennie tries to comfort her. The preoccupied Bassam staggers away to meet his fate.

The garden of the title can be viewed as the lush foliage of the damaged hothouse that's Florida or the heaven of martyrs promised Bassam. Either way, it's an obvious irony in a novel driven by Dubus' vision of this inelegant side of American culture.

He has a real feel for its gritty tackiness and sympathy for the people who live in that world, but Dubus is less comfortable with his hijacker, whose life seems constructed from a grab-bag of research rather than experience.

Dubus' point is that the terrorist attacks hit all Americans in different ways. Despite its pages of closely observed minutiae of everyday life, "The Garden of Last Days" doesn't rise above its focus on the details, where its point gets lost.

Shakespeare has made the point that the fall of a great man causes collateral damage. What dies in the self-destruction of Canin's political hero, along with his young lover, is no less than liberalism -- "the great decline of FDR's party."

Sen. Bonwiller, a New Deal Democrat, friend of the working class and opponent of the Vietnam War, emerges as President Nixon's challenger for the 1972 presidential election. His patron is the wealthy upstate New York family of Liam Metarey, who bosses a company town where young Corey grew up laboring on the Metarey estate.

Into this frame, Canin paints a variety of supporting characters -- Mrs. Metarey and her son and two daughters; Corey's parents, classmates and girlfriend; politicos; reporters; Trieste Millbury, a newspaper intern; and JoEllen Charney, Bonwiller's 26-year-old mistress.

They behave oddly. Mrs. Metarey buzzes the landscape in a small plane; Trieste wears garbage bags instead of a raincoat and, in the days of Dylan and the Rolling Stones, JoEllen loves to sing "Danny Boy."

Corey, a beneficiary of Metarey largesse, plods resolutely along doing his duty, oblivious to the small role he plays in the cover-up of Bonwiller's crime.

Like Kennedy, he leaves the scene of a car accident where a young woman who might have been saved dies. The Bonwiller campaign collapses and along with it, the promise of the New Deal.

Others die in Canin's meandering tale, but all of these tragedies seem muted, almost disconnected in Corey's account.

More importantly, Canin fails to create a fully fleshed, believable hero. His Bonwiller is usually seen from afar in front of cheering crowds, but we aren't really sure what they're cheering about.

Liam Metarey should have been a more compelling figure as well, instead of a generic "good provider" with a tragic family past. As for Corey, as a narrator he's pretty clueless, rather than idealistically naive, as Canin wants us to see him.

"America, America" is too much "telling us" and not enough "showing us" to make it an emotionally rewarding journey.

Presented serious novels by two of America's talented middle-aged novelists at the midpoint of 2008, I was disappointed that neither rose to greatness.


Book editor Bob Hoover can be reached at bhoover@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1634.


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