The Son of a Certain Woman and The Son couldn’t be much different if a committee had sat down and decided to commission two books that are about sons but otherwise have nothing in common.
Yet both are immensely readable. When I find an author I like I tend to stick with him or her for a long time. Wilbur Smith, Larry McMurtry, Bryce Courtney — you can tell I’m partial to historical fiction.
In recent years, it’s Wayne Johnston. I was introduced to him by The Colony of Unrequited Dreams, his fictional account of the life of Joey Smallwood that quickly became a Canadian classic. After that, I worked through The Navigator of New York, Baltimore’s Mansion, and others.
If you were reading Wayne Johnston for the first time, you might think Son of a Certain Woman was soft porn.
Truth is, it is, but not in the usual sense. Any story centering on a son’s lifelong obsession to have sex with his beautiful mother would have trouble avoiding some titillation and, if it did, it may as well not bother.
Johnston, it needs to be explained for the uninitiated, is one of Canada’s very finest novelists. Life consists of impatiently waiting for him to come out with his next offering.
Son of a Certain Woman is actually one of Johnston's few non-historial novels, though its time and setting are beautifully rendered. The son in the story is no ordinary son, just as the mother is no ordinary mother. This must be the most dysfunctional family in the history of Newfoundland.
The narrator is Percy Joyce, born with a disfiguring birth mark on his face and destined to be friendless and cruelly ridiculed by classmates. His father left his mother at the altar. His mother pays the rent by having sex with a kindly boarder named Pops but finds comfort in the arms of Medina, her well-intended, illiterate lover.
“As for me wanting to sleep with my mother,” Percy says on the very first page, “if you disapprove, try spending your childhood with a face that looks long past its prime, with hands and feet like the paws of some prehumen that foraged on all fours — then get back to me. Or better yet, read on.”
Those who read on will be rewarded with page after page or dark humour and character sketches, and hilariously clever dialogue, built around Percy’s trials and tribulations at the Catholic school he attends.
Always, there is Percy’s obsession with his mother, Penelope, who happens to be the most beautiful woman in St. John’s.
The novel is sexy, yes, but so funny any reader would have to go some to feel offended. Instead, you’re left with admiration for characters who refuse to give in to the many forces conspiring against them.
• • •
Philip Meyer’s The Son is a historical novel set in the American southwest. Eli McCullough is the first white male child born in the new Republic of Texas. His story is only the beginning of this multi-generational saga.
The Son does it wonderfully, using the vehicle of one descendant’s diary and another’s dying thoughts to recreate the history of the state through the story of one family.
The graphic descriptions of violence might offend some, but the story couldn’t be done justice without it. The tales of rape, murder and disease are told in an almost dispassionate, matter-of-fact way that emphasizes what an integral part of life such violence and tragedy really was.
Eli is 12 when his family is massacred by marauding Commanches, his mother and sister brutally raped and killed. He is taken captive and raised among the Commanches.
He becomes one of them, makes new friends, finds new ways to survive.
On one occasion, a young buffalo hunter is captured and tortured. “The next morning, the buffalo hunter was dead. His face and neck were bloated, but no one seemed to notice. Mostly they were disappointed.”
Ironically, the hunter has left them with smallpox, which decimates the band.
The buffalo disappear and the inexorable march of “civilization” destroys the old ways. Spanish settlers are victimized just as the Commanches were. Then comes the oil, and political turmoil, and more violence, all of it documented through this extraordinary novel.
The Son of a Certain Woman, Wayne Johnston, Alfred A. Knopp Canada, 2013, hardcover, 435 pp.
The Son, Philipp Meyer, Harper Collins, 2013, softcover, 561 pp.