Flesh and Blood Summary (Michael Cunningham)

Michael Cunningham

Flesh and Blood

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

The title FLESH AND BLOOD is a double-entendre. In addition to signifying kinship, it foreshadows the novel’s interwoven themes of sex, suffering, and death. When Constantine Sassos, a headstrong Greek immigrant, marries a simple young Italian American girl named Mary Cuccio, he initiates a tragic chain of events. Their children—Billy, Susan, and Zoe—growing up in the turbulent 1960’s and 1970’s and are shaped into far more complex individuals than their parents. Constantine cannot comprehend or accept his children’s identities. He wants them to be affluent, middle-class, church-going, heterosexual, monogamous Republicans. They seem perversely determined to thwart him.

Billy realizes he is gay and takes a lover with whom he lives for the rest of his life. Zoe becomes a nihilistic drug addict and eventually has an illegitimate son by an African American man who abandons her. Zoe’s best friend is a black drag queen named Cassandra who helps her rear her son Jamal in the Manhattan underworld. Susan marries a lawyer and has a big home in Connecticut but becomes disenchanted with the plastic suburban lifestyle and ends up divorced. Her only child Ben is probably not her husband’s but the product of her affair with a tree surgeon. Ben discovers that he is gay and, despairing of living up to grandfather Constantine’s uncompromising expectations, commits suicide.

Constantine becomes a millionaire real estate developer but never really grasps his American Dream. He and Mary get divorced. Mary proves more adaptable. She actually becomes close friends with Cassandra and amazes herself by enjoying luncheons in fashionable restaurants with a black man dressed in flamboyant female apparel. Zoe and Cassandra die of AIDS. Billy adopts Jamal, and the precocious boy grows up with two male parents. The final chapter flashes forward to the year 2035. Everyone is dead except Jamal, who is married and a father.

Cunningham has a regrettable tendency to flaunt his verbal skill. His novel is episodic because he leapfrogs audaciously among eight characters’ points of view. He often writes with powerful insight and compassion, promising greater things as he continues to mature.