“I could kill for this boy . . . I could wage wars, burn down villages, protect him with my dying breath…”
I am laying on the carpet, looking my ferret (Rudy) in the eyes, shouting—this David is aggravating! Rudy waddles off, caring for none of my concerns. Rudy is more interested in collecting my pens to stash them underneath the dresser.
Thrity Umrigar’s Everybody’s Son summons all the raw emotions squalled away deep within the caverns of my cranium. Many emotions, I rarely experience, emerged from this cave to share their greetings. Umrigar has put together an incredibly smarth and powerful novel.
Everybody’s Son explores institutionalized racism and the perils of class privilege. As such, it might be easy for some readers to condemn this novel as nothing more than adhering to a liberal agenda. That would not be a close reading, however. Let it be known that, taking place in the United States, Umrigar thoroughly interrogates the liberal or “Democratic” mind in these pages. No stone is left unturned.
I’ll refrain from an over-indulgent socio-political rant by way of Everybody’s Son. All I wish to say in this regard is that Umrigar expertly probes the psyche of racism, how it infiltrates every well-meaning system and how it replicates a long history of exploitation in even the most innocent of transactions.
This is a timely novel amidst the crisis and controversy of grass roots movements such as Black Lives Matter, which pushes against even liberal and democratic resistance.
He sank to his knees, the green bathroom tile cool against his body. He was everybody’s son, but he belonged to no one…
A small black boy, Anton, escapes from his boarded-up house after his mother doesn’t return from a drug house. But Anton doesn’t escape without cutting his leg open. Finding himself in the foster-care system, it is the “benevolent” Judge, David, who fosters Anton (later adopting him), raising him to be a competent, confident, and educated young attorney who eventually follows in his father’s footsteps as governor. The novel takes place over a couple decades.
What first appears as a touching father and son relationship between Anton and David—forged through David’s unending love and care for Anton—turns out to proceed a lie. David coerces Anton’s mother into surrendering custody of her child because he believes she cannot care for him as some wretched, sickly women consumed by drugs and poverty. Only David can raise Anton to his fullest potential. Only David.
David eerily reminds me of the “civilizing” crusades of Europe in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The paternalistic fulfillment enjoyed by the European colonizers of ruling “the natives,” and shaping them to be the best that they can be. It is called the “white man’s burden” that he carries the duty, alone, to save the savage from its primitiveness (…only David…). All the while exploiting their bodies and the resources of the land.
At the end of every day, David rehearses to himself the good deed he and his wife, Delores, are doing adopting this child. Every day he has to convince Anton that his mother did not love him. Only David could show Anton love.
Yet, as the novel progresses we witness that David loves Anton, obsessively, in part to satisfy a lack in his own life—the death of his biological son years before Anton. He thinks that Anton is the answer to his prayers, that Anton will repair his broken family. Only Anton.
Indeed, David does have “good intentions” in his heart, but we cannot ignore the blatant robbery of a child from mother to satisfy his emotional emptiness. By the second part, the narrative switches gears, focusing on Anton.
We learn that Anton is not simply a victim throughout the novel. He must confront his up-bringing in a wealthy neighbourhood and the opportunity to claim an Ivy League education—and that he can pass as white. Anton finds himself apologizing for, time-and-time again, the same system that ripped him from his biological mother.
It wasn’t just Anton’s mom they had locked away, he realized. Anton, too, was in a jail that he hadn’t chosen…
Between 1991 and ending in 2016, Umrigar does not simplify the arch of her characters. We follow them as they grow-up and age, and as their opinions of the world radically change. This is the greatest strength of the novel. Granted, the plot-line, a drama more than anything, is a page-turner, it is the cast that shines in each chapter.
The characters are memorable because they make rash decisions. They follow their heart, even if it takes them into unforgivable terrain. At once a study of racism, sexism, and classism in the United States culture and administration, Everybody’s Son is also a study of character.
I don’t want to say that Umrigar writes a sad or melodramatic novel. The final chapters offer reconciliation and hope for the characters. The beauty—truly—of setting the novel over twenty-five years is we can witness the characters also change into better people. Anton grows up. Delores becomes an honest, and independent women, jettisoning herself from the orbit of David. We can also take their realizations as instructive examples for the everyday tribulations we face in society as a whole.
A new beginning, he said to himself, and felt comforted enough that he said it again. A new beginning. A new beginning. Please, God, a new beginning…
Despite its length (I would call this a longer novel), Everybody’s Son makes use of every chapter and every paragraph and every word. Perhaps the conclusion of the novel was slightly drawn out. Nevertheless, I had a hard time putting this book down when responsibility called. I finished it in two nights!
It helps that Umrigar has a clean and smooth writing style. There is a mastery of beats in the prose. Again, it is the characters that stand out. This might as well be a pop-up book—these are the kind of characters I develop opinions about.
I have played out conversations with these characters in my mind during mundane tasks as if they were real people in my life. If I could spend an afternoon having coffee with them, one on one, I would tell them how I feel. (I wouldn’t hold back on David). David, what you did was unforgivable. Anton, I hope you can find peace with yourself and your biological mother. And, Delores, divorce David already because he is a mongrel who never considered your feelings from the beginning. He is Only about David.
I’d let them know, too, that things seem to work out in the end.