Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1882
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 and letting him live in their basement. Danny was Morgan’s assistant on the garbage truck until he was arrested by Roy for possession of a pistol that had been used in a gang murder. No one can understand why Morgan should have any compassion for this young former gang member, who cannot even function effectively as a probationary apprentice garbage collector. Peter Ivanovich hates him on sight. He sees the overgrown, obnoxious bully as belonging to the same class as the uniformed thugs who mindlessly executed orders to enslave tens of millions in Europe and the Soviet Union. Roy hates him because he recognizes him as a career criminal. Roy is also apprehensive about having an unprincipled young hoodlum living under the same roof as Emma and disapproves of the friendship that springs up between his young son Petey and Danny, whose intelligence quotient is not much higher than that of the little boy.
Danny characteristically expresses his primitive feelings in grunts, glares, and shrugs. In spite of their antipathy, Roy and Zhenya find themselves helping Danny to escape the prison term he richly deserves. Roy destroys his career by stealing the gun that would have been used to convict Danny of being at least an accessory to murder, and Morgan and Zhenya become accessories to the crime themselves by burying the weapon in a nightmarish scene at the city landfill in the dead of night. Danny shows no gratitude, but gratitude is not in his nature. He, too, is a product of the twentieth century, an all-too-common example of the barbarians proliferating in cities, towns, and out among the junkyards, roadhouses, and dilapidated house trailers in the isolated countryside.
Peter Ivanovich, who has learned more from bitter life experiences than from all the books he has read, tries to explain to his daughter Zhenya why her husband concerned himself about Danny’s fate. She initially suspected that it was because Morgan had somehow found out that Danny was the father of Emma’s child. Since she loathes Danny, this suspicion only makes her the more disgusted with her entire life and the more motivated to terminate her marriage. She goes as far as trying to buy a condo in a new suburban development. She is told, however, that she cannot take title as sole owner as long as she is only contemplating divorce but still legally married. She feels hopelessly entangled with a husband who comes to university functions in smelly work clothes, a daughter who seems content to be a dependent unwed mother, a grandson for whom she became the primary caregiver because her daughter was only a child herself when she gave birth, and a father who seems destined to become a houseguest for all of his remaining years.
Peter Ivanovich was one of the worst fathers a daughter could imagine. He was absent throughout most of her life and never provided the love and understanding she needed. Nonetheless, she knows—and her father knows—that she has an innate compulsion to play the part of the devoted daughter which every Russian father expects. Having obtained a key to the condo of her dreams—a sepulchrally white set of empty rooms that offer the false promise of a chance to start life all over again—Zhenya goes there in secret to hide from everyone she knows. She even breaks into the unit to sleep on the carpet after the real estate agent has had to change all the locks. Her father finally reveals that the real explanation for Morgan’s interest in Danny is that the young man is exactly the same age their son would have been if he had lived. This revelation hardly makes Zhenya feel any better. In fact, she slaps her father’s face and orders the astonished old man never to mention that theory again.
Boswell likes symbolism, even though it seems a little out of place in what—at least in its deadpan tone and lackadaisical plot—resembles a minimalist novel. The street where the Morgans live is being widened to make way for the relentless progress that is homogenizing so many American towns with chainsaws, bulldozers, dump trucks, and franchise outlets. All the beautiful trees on Forest Avenue have to be cut down and the symbolism of this event is perhaps a little too reminiscent of Anton Chekhov’s play Vishnyovy sad (pr., pb. 1904; The Cherry Orchard, 1908). Boswell’s people, like little people everywhere, are victims of powerful forces that do their insidious work slowly over centuries. They have no choice but to accept their fate and to grab whatever little happiness they can find along the way. To quote French detective novelist Georges Simenon (1903-1989), who saw his share of the twentieth century’s troubles, “Nothing is ever pleasant and serene. Nowhere.”
Peter Ivanovich has seen so many real troubles in his lifetime, including Stalin’s mass murders and two world wars, that he cannot take his family’s problems very seriously. Having lived through much of history’s cruelest century, he has no illusions about humankind. Americans may expect life to be tranquil, hygienic, and comfortable, but he knows that life everywhere is precarious and unpredictable. He not only disrupts the lives of his daughter and son-in-law but also gets involved with the uptight, prudish Adriana East, who lives in a spotless house on the other side of the now deforested Forest Avenue. She is the type of woman who involves herself with committees and cultural affairs, reading the latest books whether she likes them or not, keeping herself busy to avoid facing her loneliness and sexual frustration. The drunken Russian libertine takes her to bed on the night he first meets her and in a short while, he has made himself quite at home in her home—though he still comes across the street to help himself to his daughter’s food and liquor. Mrs. East realizes that her hitherto genteel reputation has been demolished but adopts her lover’s hedonistic, amoral, existential attitude. She suddenly seems to be a much better, much more likable person, because she has become real.
All the characters’ problems seem to work themselves out at the end, although not to anyone’s complete satisfaction. Life drifts on in Hayden, Illinois, as it does everywhere else. The old century comes to an end and a new one begins, offering promises that will never be fulfilled and illusions that will have to be shattered.
Sources for Further Study
Booklist 98 (March 15, 2002): 1210.
Kirkus Reviews 70 (February 15, 2002): 203.
Library Journal 127 (March 15, 2002): 106.
The New York Times Book Review 107 (April 21, 2002): 10.
Publishers Weekly 249 (March 18, 2002): 79.
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