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Everybody’s Son

June 12, 2017

I got an advance copy of Thrity Umrigar’s novel Everybody’s Son from HarperCollins (it’s available now) and found it an absorbing and thoughtful look at black/white race relations in the US today from the perspective of a relative outsider, a novelist who didn’t even arrive in this country until she was 21.

The main character, everybody’s son, is a 9-year-old mixed-race boy named Anton who was taken by Children’s Services after being left alone for seven days in an apartment while his mother was in a crack house nearby. The white judge who fosters Anton, David, has signed up to be a foster parent because his own son died in a car accident five years previously, on the night of his senior prom. David believes that fostering a child will help his wife recover from the loss of their son, but from the very start it’s obvious that he is the one it’s helping:
“But then the boy tilted his head up, and David’s breath caught in his throat. Anton’s skin was golden, almost luminous. His large amber eyes dominated a beautiful, slender face. When those eyes landed on David, he felt—there was no other way to say it—privileged, as if some rare bird had alighted on his shoulder.”

David is hurting; I can’t imagine the pain of losing a child. And he does struggle with his feelings of wanting to hold on to Anton for as long as he can. Eventually, however, he gives in to the temptation to use his power and influence to make it possible for him to adopt Anton, despite the fact that his mother is still alive. So the longer the story goes on, the less I like David. When we see what’s happening from Anton’s point of view, or from his mother’s (her name is Juanita), we see that they love each other and that “she’d made a bad mistake,” so the way they are separated is hard for a reader to forgive.

When Anton goes off to college (Harvard; he’s a legacy) he meets a girl and “heard the term ‘the white gaze’ for the first time. He had spent his boyhood and teenage years, he realized, mindful of that white gaze….What would it feel like, he wondered, to be free and direct….To not have to constantly smile to prove that you were unthreatening, to continually demonstrate that you were intelligent, articulate, and not an affirmative action charity case?”

The girl, Carine, comes home from college with Anton for Thanksgiving vacation and there are some moments that rang true to me, as the mother of a college-age son who has been staying at my house with his girlfriend for the past 18 days. Just when David is getting to talk to Anton and share what he calls “some quality father-son time,” Carine comes in to say someone needs to run to the store. And although David starts to ask Anton if he’ll come with him, he is too late, because Anton has already asked Carine to go with him. This is the situation of a parent when the adult child falls in love. The situation is complicated, however, by the fact that Carine is black and doesn’t shy away from discussing current events, even when Anton’s adopted family make it clear that there is a party line. The conversation/quarrel ends with Carine telling them that “in my house, we discuss everything. No subjects are off limits. My immigrant father encourages debate….That’s what he thinks it means to be an American.”

When Anton finally finds his mother again, in Georgia, she tells him something that he also experiences: “down here, you know exactly where you stand. White man is king here, yesterday, today, and tomorrow. But up north, they talk sweet to your face. And then cut your throat when you ain’t looking.”

During his time in Georgia Anton gets the whole picture of the circumstances surrounding his adoption, but then has trouble placing blame squarely on any one person. His father, he sees, has abused his authority, but “David had risked his legal license, his profession, his family name, for the sake of—for the sake of what? Him?”

Visiting Carine, who is living in Georgia and happily married, helps Anton put together the pieces of his life and realize that “he was a technocrat, he wanted to fix problems and improve people’s lives but without too much interaction with the people themselves.” There’s some explicit criticism of the methods of liberal democrats here, timely in its publication as those sometimes condescending and frequently paternalistic methods have come under attack with the GOP majority in congress.

Umrigar manages to carry her message with the plot, rather than let it take over, but it’s fairly explicit at some points, like when Anton thinks
“He understood why David had done what he had. He also understood that the passage of time and its retrospective gaze could lengthen the shadows of an original deed and give it a more monstrous shape. The men who owned slaves were thinking about their cotton yield that year, and how to protect their wives from the roving eye of that particular Negro, and not about original sin. Anton had always believed that the great fatal flaw in Marxist theory was that it had never accounted for actual human behavior—the yawn, the stretch, the shrug, the looking away. And that was exactly what David had done. He had not battled with complexity, had not tried to figure out a way to remain a presence in Anton’s life after his mother was released from prison. What was unforgivable was not that David had wanted Anton to remain in his life or even his conceit in believing that he knew better than anybody else what was in the boy’s best interest. It was that he’d taken a shortcut and exploited Juanita’s situation. It was the oldest story in the world—the ends justifying the means.”

The end of the story is pure wish fulfillment, as Anton thinks to himself that “people always want their politicians to be father figures. I won’t be. But what I think I can be is a damn good son. A responsible heir, a sober custodian of what belongs to them.” If only a few more politicians believed that.

If any outside view can make us Americans see a few of the flaws in our system, the ones that politicans have been exploiting until it seems to many of us that there’s little system left, it’s the view in Thrity Umrigar’s newest novel.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. June 12, 2017 8:45 am

    Thanks for the review – I have this in my to be read pile, so it’s good to get your views!

    • June 19, 2017 7:37 am

      I hope you read it sooner rather than later, so I can get another point of view on it!

  2. Nancy permalink
    June 12, 2017 10:46 am

    I was there until I read the tired old trope about the South. I’ve heard the same blatant racism every single place I’ve lived. And until people from all over this country stop ignoring the winks, nudges, and dog whistles, stop pretending that they’re not happening, and locating all the “open” racism in the South, we will stay right where we are: all of us partaking of a heaping helping of white supremacy at every meal.

    • June 19, 2017 7:37 am

      As you know, Ron and I have been thinking about this a lot, including during our recent trip to Louisiana. Of course you’re right that there’s racism all over this country and it’s silly of northerners to believe they’re less complicit, but I’m starting to believe that what was formerly less “open” racism (when this book was being written) is the kind that takes place in the north because people don’t really know many people who look “other.” It might be a little more like xenophobia in the north than it is in the south.

  3. aartichapati permalink
    June 12, 2017 6:26 pm

    Beautiful review! I’m definitely going to add this one to my list. I kind of agree with Nancy, though I say “kind of” because I haven’t spent a lot of time in the south. That said, racism is racism. And people in the north need to realize how complicit they continue to be, too.

    • June 19, 2017 7:41 am

      My experience has been growing up in southern states and living as an adult in northern ones, so that may skew my perspective, but I find northerners more prone to treating the “other” as criminals or druggies or anyone who needs to be taken care of. We’re condescending up here when we’re trying to be kind, the kind of condescending that comes from not knowing anyone we’re trying to “help.”

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