“I write to make sense of the world and to make sense of my own, often contradictory, emotions and feelings.” These words, taken from the home page of Thrity Umrigar’s website, offer both a guide and a warning to the potential reader of Everybody’s Son, which features nine-year-old Anton Vesper.
Umrigar’s sixth novel is a head-on exploration of the complex and explosive world of American race politics, of power and its abuse, of self-interest masquerading as altruism, of privilege and deprivation. That she has contradictory feelings about some or all of this is not surprising – and I can pretty well guarantee that potential readers will share some of that confusion both about the issues and her handling of them.
We meet Umrigar’s vehicle, Anton, at the start of the book as he breaks a window to escape the room in which he has been locked for the previous seven days.
There is a heatwave. The fridge doesn’t work, there is no air-conditioning or fan. What little food was in the apartment has gone. His mother, Juanita, is a crack addict and had left him for a quick hit, a trip that because of her indebtedness results in her imprisonment and rape until her “dues” are paid. When the police discover Anton he is bleeding from a bad gash in his leg; when they discover Juanita, she is half naked and high. This, then, is life in the rough end of the projects.
The home of Judge David Coleman could not be more different. Coleman is the Harvard educated son of a US senator. His house, lifestyle, and occupation drip money, power and influence. But at its core there is a hole: he and his wife, Delores, have lost their own son in a car crash.
Both are devastated but David especially so, and when Anton is taken into care, needing a foster home while his mother is in prison, the opportunity is too good to pass over. Despite his wife’s initial reservations, David determines to give Anton a home and a new start in life.
So far, so good. Anton is fostered, not adopted. When his mother is released from prison after a, normally, short period of custody, he will return to her care. Or at least, that is what ought to happen.
Instead, Coleman, who has by this time fallen unhealthily in love with his “golden boy”, is prepared to pervert the course of justice and lie in order to maintain custody. It is, of course, “for the boy’s own good”, to “give him the chances he would never otherwise have”. Altruism or self-interest and self-delusion? The questions about true motives start to bite.
Under Coleman’s influence, Anton develops rapidly. He is a talented boy and he responds to the opportunities given to him by his new environment. Umrigar illustrates the crucial change of values in a scene in which the family (as they now are) goes skiing.
Anton is cold and clumsy and scared. He falls over, he is mocked by another boy. He gives up and Delores supports him. But it’s a turning point for Coleman.
Taking the boy back on the slopes against his will, he preaches the new dogma: “You know what’s scariest of all? Failure. That’s the really scary thing. The real monster is failing. Being a quitter. Proving that boy right. You know? The one who called you a loser. That’s the true scary.”
From that point on Anton is firmly on the road to success, a success which will see him ultimately become attorney-general for the state and run for the senate. All of which begs the question, was David Coleman right? Do the ends justify the means? The biracial son of a crack addict has been “saved” and become a force for good – surely that has to be a good thing?
Well, yes it is, but it is not quite as simple as that – because a number of issues remain for Anton and most of them have to do with race. At Harvard he falls in love with “the blackest, funkiest, most beautiful woman he had ever seen”.
And Carine tears into him about race, gender, belonging, the underclass and white supremacy. She is idealistic, she is naive and she is very clumsy but she shakes Anton up and makes him look at his own background and the loss of his biological mother with a clarity he has avoided all his life.
I like that this is a book about many important things – it is absurdly ambitious in the ground it attempts to cover and Umrigar is not always a surefooted guide. There are moments that do not convince (even perhaps the premise), there is too much over-writing, there is a tendency to melodrama, and the ending is overwrought.
But having said all that, Everybody’s Son gripped me, provoked questions and provided no easy answers. I have a feeling it is going to do very well indeed and book discussion groups everywhere will love it.
Author: Thrity Umrigar
Publisher: Harper, fiction