The title of Robert Boswell’s new novel, Century’s Son, refers to the fact that the protagonist, Peter Ivanovich Kamenev, claims to have lived throughout the entire twentieth century and to have known many of the most important figures of that turbulent epoch. This earthy old man will remind readers of Boris Yeltsin, former president of Russia, who was a renegade, a heavy drinker, and a notorious bottom-pincher. Kamenev may also remind readers of the actor Akim Tamiroff (1901-1972), the fictional character Zorba the Greek, and possibly a little of novelist Vladimir Nabokov (1899-1977). Kamenev is by far the most interesting character in Boswell’s book. Each of its nine chapters is headed by a quotation purportedly from the writings of Peter Ivanovich Kamenev, who provides a philosophical counterpoint to a story about alienation, despair, and guilt in modern middle America. Here are a few examples of his cryptic one-liners:
Strengths and weaknesses are the same thing, the valuable and the invaluable.
We record history as if it were a sorrow pageant, each disaster competing with the next to wear the crown.
Vulgarity is an expression of stupidity, coarseness, or freedom.
Peter Ivanovich invites himself to move into his daughter Zhenya’s house, where he behaves like a barbarian but sets an iconoclastic example that changes the lives of the other three members of his uptight, small-town American family as well as the lives of two of their neighbors. His chief claim to fame is that, in his youth, he had a golden opportunity to assassinate Josef Stalin and declined to do so on philosophical principles, thereby allowing Stalin to live to become the greatest murderer of the twentieth century. Peter Ivanovich speaks in broken English, lies outrageously about his life experiences, and stays drunk most of the time. Yet he is obviously the genuine article, a real intellectual and a genius, as opposed to the dignified portraits of famous men of the twentieth century usually found in reverential biographies and stiffly posed photographs.
The Morgans are a mismatched couple. Zhenya is a political science professor at the local university, while her husband, who goes only by his last name, drives around collecting the town’s garbage and trucking it out to the dump. He is sensitive and intelligent, an underachiever who pushes Zhenya to the brink of divorce because he is so apathetic and so indifferent to her upwardly mobile aspirations. Morgan lost interest in life after their son, Philip, committed suicide. The family is haunted by his death. Their daughter, Emma, became pregnant at age fourteen and refused to divulge the name of her son Petey’s father. The reader is let in on the secret in chapter 2. The boy’s father is none other than the next- door neighbor and good family friend Roy Oberland, a policeman who was twenty-seven at the time of Petey’s conception and therefore guilty of statutory rape.
Emma, a university student, is now twenty years old. She and Roy have been carrying on an affair for six years right under her parents’ noses. Roy is still consumed with guilt. He is deeply in love with Emma but married a woman he did not really love because he hoped to get over his obsession with a minor. Emma has a beautiful figure. She is on the Hayden University diving team and spends much of her spare time practicing in the family swimming pool. Roy stands on his bed in the second-floor bedroom to watch her surreptitiously. Eventually his wife discovers his guilty secret and divorces him. He is relieved, because he thinks he might be able to marry Emma now that she has reached adulthood. In the interim, however, she has made friends with college youths and is having misgivings about remaining involved with a lover who is already thirty-four.
The secret of Petey’s paternity is the most dramatic element in the story and the clandestine trysts between Emma and Roy provide much of the suspense. The reader expects an explosion when Morgan and Zhenya find out that their friend and neighbor is a child rapist. They may be blind to the truth, but the truth does not escape the sharp eyes of Peter Ivanovich, who has a weakness for young girls himself. He understands that Roy’s interest in Petey, as well as their physical resemblance, are unmistakable clues that Emma’s parents cannot see because they could not believe that their friendly, trusted neighbor—a police officer at that—would have taken advantage of a fourteen-year-old girl.
Morgan further irritates Zhenya by befriending the loutish Danny Ford, using family funds to bail him out of jail...
(The entire section is 1882 words.)