The rot within

Scratching below the surface of the crumbling American Dream

Published - August 06, 2017 04:00 am IST

Representational image

Representational image

On the seventh day, the boy broke the window,” is how Thrity Umrigar’s latest novel, Everybody’s Son , opens. A nine-year old boy left locked inside the house alone by his crack-addled mother is a familiar scene from American news or Hollywood cinema (most recently, Moonlight ). However, this is an intriguing story of possibilities as a biracial boy growing up in the southern belt finds himself, after the incident described above, in a foster home that couldn’t be further from his impoverished life in the American state of Georgia.

When Anton Vesper’s mother Juanita is arrested for neglected parenting, he is taken in by the Colemans, a white couple still grieving for their own son killed in a car accident. For David Coleman, Anton is a replacement and someone to fill an unbearable void; his wife, the more pragmatic Delores, is

under no such illusion. What begins as a temporary arrangement turns—by way of human deception at an individual level and corruption of a system at an administrative level—into a permanent one.

No getting away

David develops such a quick and deep attachment to Anton that he manipulates the system—a system corrupt and pliable enough for the rich and the powerful to get what they want. Juanita’s sentence is lengthened to allow the Colemans more time with Anton. Upon her release, she is offered money to sever ties with her son in exchange for a Harvard degree for the boy.

That the Colemans have deep ties with the political and legal administration is no coincidence. At first, the plot seems like a study in contrasts—a not-so-black boy displaced from a crime-infested black neighbourhood in a red state to the wealthy home of a judge (the son of a U.S. Senator no less) in a posh, all-white neighbourhood in northeastern America.

With his mixed-race good looks and easy demeanour, Anton fits in easily, soon settling into his new life with resignation. A white boy of coloured skin, he goes on to study law at Harvard as decided. It is only in his first serious relationship with the outspoken African-American Carine that he is confronted with his blackness, or rather, the lack of it.

Everybody’s Son is a well-crafted story that scratches below the surface of the crumbling American Dream. It tells you that good breeding does not ensure morality. That despite the liberal leanings of the Colemans, there is no getting away from racial stereotypes. That not all white families that seem perfect on the outside are quite as stable on the inside. Eventually, the book looks at the malaise that is intrinsic to the political as well as the filial makeup of the country.

When Anton runs for the position of Attorney General with his father for Governor, the personal intersects with the political and we are privy to what goes on behind the scenes in American politics.

While the book holds your interest till the end, the plot begins to weaken as it leads to a predictable conclusion. The loose ends are too neatly tied to allow Anton to finally find closure and make peace with himself and his loved ones. In contrast with Umrigar’s deft handling of the complexities of human nature in the first half, Anton’s excessive sentimentality seems out of place in the latter part.

Unmet needs

Similarly, his swift assessment and immediate grasp of the past as it unravels, are too quick for belief. And yet, Umrigar captures the difficult realisation that dawns upon Anton and, indeed, upon all children, once they make the transition to adulthood: “But now he knew there were no adults, just tall children stumbling around the world, walking pools of unfinished hopes, unmet needs, and seething desires.”

Everybody’s Son juxtaposes race, identity, belonging and flawed human beings with the equally flawed politics of a powerful nation. That a biracial man can go on to stand for elections in America is no longer a novel concept but the price he must pay to get there, is also what the book seeks to explore.

The writer is a freelancer based in Mumbai. She is the author of the novel, Wanderers, All .

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