by Thrity Umrigar. Harper Collins. 2017
Can we ever escape the consequences of an immoral action, even if we think some good will come out of it? Thrity Umrigar, a prominent Indian-American writer, a professor, a journalist, and a Nieman Fellowship recipient, narrates a tale, Everybody’s Son, in which an immoral and illegal act changes lives and makes us wonder whether justice and atonement will follow. Karma is a universal concept in spite of the word’s Hindu origins. Still, it is noteworthy that Umrigar has chosen not to have any Indian or Indian-American characters in Everybody’s Son, her most recent book, and, at the same time, have us think about karma.
Her previous novel, The Weight of Heaven, bears some similarities to Everybody’s Son. The parents in both of the books grieve the death of a son and this loss sets in motion the two stories. The two novels highlight the class issue and bring to light how the poor and uneducated are exploited by those who wield power — The Weight of Heaven shows Indian villagers being taking advantage of by a foreign company and an American expatriate using his Indian servant’s son as a substitute for his dead child; Everybody’s Son demonstrates privileged white male power stripping a poor black woman of her right to her son in America. The fathers in the two novels each seek to better the life of a child from a lower social class as a means of alleviating their own suffering. Their marriages and their morals have been affected by the loss of their only child. The issues of race, class, exploitation, morality are hard to navigate in real life. In Everybody’s Son Umrigar holds up a mirror to these complications, and, in the end, like a magician, enthralls us with a splendid finale that makes us see the actions of a few important characters in a different light.
Everybody’s Son starts with a riveting scene – a boy breaks out of an apartment in which he’s been trapped for seven days in extremely hot temperatures with a dwindling food supply. Mam, as he calls his mother, is a drug addict who was unable to return to their apartment because she was held hostage, doped, and forced into prostitution by her drug dealer. Anton doesn’t even know who his white father is. He is taken in by David, the son of a senator, and Delores, whose white patrician backgrounds are strikingly different from his. The foster parents are in grief over the death of their son in a car accident five years ago. David and Delores are kind and loving to Anton, but he longs for Mam and finds it difficult to adjust to a more privileged way of life and to move in circles where he is the only black child. “Here, he was stared at wherever they went, like he was in the circus.“ When he favorably compares his life with his mother to his life with his foster parents, we see the different lifestyles of a child in the projects to that of a child in an affluent neighborhood, not as an indifferent onlooker, but as a reader who feels sorry for the uprooted Anton.
David can’t bear the thought of relinquishing Anton to Mam, even before her prison term for child endearment is yet to be fixed, and the irony is that he, a judge, resorts to lies and breaks the law to ensure it won’t happen. He sees his own self-control and reticence in the boy. At first we like David, but it is selfishness more than grief that carves out his destiny and thereby the fate of Delores, who doesn’t want Anton to be permanently deprived of Mam. Delores says, “Sweetheart. I know you mean well. I know that, okay? It’s just that, you’re like a hurricane and I …Everything that’s in your path just gets swept along.”
David tries to justify his actions to himself and, like many privileged people, thinks that his wealth can be used to ameliorate a bad situation and that the ends justify the means. David’s best friend is the lawyer prosecuting Mam and his colleague presides over the court case and his friends are more interested in helping him than in seeing justice done. As a result Mam is locked away for two and a half years, in spite of her plea bargain which should have gotten her less time in jail. Her karma for leaving her son alone in the apartment and for being a drug-addict has caught up to her, but the same force does not operate equally on the rich and privileged, who seem resistant to it, initially at least.
Through duplicitous means, David adopts Anton and flourishes as a father. His life is now richer with the boy. Selfish people can be selfless; his only request to Anton is that he be called Dad. The reader will feel the gross injustice done to the biological mother and son not only because she has the right to raise him, but also because Umrigar makes it explicit they share a strong love. We are indignant Anton has no idea that the father of his best friend is the lawyer who prosecuted his mother.
Part of the pleasure of the novel and part of our understanding of the characters stems from seeing their third person perspectives, which Umrigar accomplishes in limpid prose. David reflects, “And Anton was smart, his intelligence unsullied by his past circumstances. He had come to them covered with the dust of ignorance. All they’d had to do was blow off that dust. “ In an illicit meeting with Mam, David’s preconceptions of her are blown away. His stream of thought shows us an intelligent man hoodwinking himself: “He persisted because a strange thing happened – the more he spoke, the more he believed what was coming out of his mouth. If a lie could be the truth, then this was it. And when he was done, she disappeared behind her own face, was swallowed up whole, and the devastation he’d wrought was so perfect that he had to look away.”
As Anton grows up , we wonder whether he can heal and meet his foster father’s expectations for him and whether he can ever really be fully integrated into the white world he came to inhabit. He muses, “What did Brad, what did all of them, see when they looked at him—the whitest black man in the world? Or the blackest white man? Which one was he? Whom did he want to be?” David, a liberal Democrat, becomes the governor of the northeastern state they live in, ever cognizant that if his clandestine meeting with Mam became known, he would be destroyed professionally and his relationship with his adopted son would be altered. Anton’s success propels him into the public arena like his father, but will he be able to become his father’s successor as his supporters want him to be? Anton has difficulty settling down with any of his girlfriends. With patience, Umrigar holds the threads of deceptions and misunderstanding and, like a skillful weaver, she pulls them this way and that way to educate us, to show us that serendipity can happen to victims, and to make us marvel that strength lies in unexpected places. We want to know whether her story will demonstrate that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” as Martin Luther King, Jr. once said.
Another novel that begs comparison to Everybody’s Son is Umrigar’s award-winning book, The Space Between Us. In the latter, she compares the lives of an upper middle class woman and her servant, who are both abused by the men in their lives. In Everybody’s Son, Mam suffers at the hands of her drug dealer and is a victim of injustice. Umrigar’s career as a journalist has rendered her a sharp observer of human nature and an informed writer who plumbs the depth behind the political façade of David to expose him as he really is. She convinces us not to be quick to judge people; and she reminds us that human beings are complicated, capable of change or unwilling to evolve; and that life is not fair because the rich may try to get away with their selfish desires; and that the poor get cheated easily; and that, in spite of all the progress that has been made, racism still exists and that black lives like Mam’s matter.