Century's Son

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"A moving Portrait of a family united and divided by a tragic loss, a subtle meditation on moral responsibility, and a slyly funny comedy of errors, CENTURY'S SON is a heartbreaking, ultimately exhilarating novel by one of America's finest writers."

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"A moving Portrait of a family united and divided by a tragic loss, a subtle meditation on moral responsibility, and a slyly funny comedy of errors, CENTURY'S SON is a heartbreaking, ultimately exhilarating novel by one of America's finest writers."

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“A capacious, complex novel. There’s so much going on you can’t miss a line, but you wouldn’t want to.” —Chicago Tribune

“[Century’s Son] is utterly compelling....Perhaps the loveliest surprise of this terrific novel is how easily Boswell moves from the absurd to the tragic without comment, excuse, or explanation.” —The Washington Post Book World

“Unexpectedly deep and effective...Against an increasingly interconnected world, Boswell sets his vision of one family’s painful, incomplete, unorthodox but still stirring return to life as an irremediably private matter.” —The New York Times Book Review

“Stunning...Cross Anne Tyler with Michael Chabon and you’d get a cast something like the one Boswell has bred.” —Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

New Yorker
Morgan, whose first name has fallen away "from disuse," was once a fearless labor organizer for his fellow sanitation workers; it was his uncompromising idealism that led Zhenya, his college-professor wife, to fall in love with him. But, ten years later, Morgan has abandoned his activism; he spends his days collecting garbage and contemplating his decline, which began when his son hanged himself, at the age of twelve. As if the Morgan marriage didn't have enough to deal with, Zhenya's father, the famous Russian writer Peter Ivanovich Kamenev, is coming to visit: part charlatan, part bully, part wise fool, Peter claims to be a hundred years old, and his fame rests on a possibly apocryphal incident in which he had the opportunity to kill Joseph Stalin. The first part of the novel suffers from nervous energy, with too many characters and too much plot, but Boswell settles down to furnish a moving portrait of a family both torn apart and united by grief.
Publishers Weekly
Peter Ivanovich Kamenev, the aphorist/con man whose lie that he is 100 years old gives Boswell's new novel its title, claims that "mystery is the truth, history the lie." Kamenev, impoverished, lustful, deceitful, a celebrity intellectual, is coming to live with his daughter, Zhenya, in Hayden, Ill. Zhenya is a political scientist at Hayden University, for whom history is the only truth. Yet much to her chagrin, she is surrounded with mysteries, beginning with the death of her son, Philip, who hanged himself at 12. There is also the undetermined parentage of Petey, the son her daughter, Emma, bore at 14. Zhenya wants to forget these truths to go after her father's myth she has compiled a file to undermine him. Morgan, Zhenya's husband, is less concerned with truth than integrity. He is a garbage man who, when Zhenya married him, was the heroic local union president, leading a successful strike. In the 10 years since Philip's death, he has resigned from his position and existed in a trance of melancholy, only roused from it by a crusade to keep his garbage truck partner, Danny Ford, out of prison. Boswell's treatment of the misfortunes of this eccentric household is reminiscent of the dilemma Emerson pointed out, long ago, in "Experience": the diminishment of grief feels like a failure to authentically commit to some loved other, yet grief's prolongation really is a failure to commit to others. Boswell's story relentlessly unfolds the logic of that dark insight. Forecast: This is Boswell's best novel since Mystery Ride and yet another installment in his kaleidoscopic chronicle of the odd twists and turns of family life in modern America. Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Set in 1999 in a central Illinois college town, this compelling chronicle of an unusual family centers on the seemingly odd couple of Morgan, a garbage collector and one-time union organizer, and Zhenya, his wife and a political science professor. Along with daughter Emma, they put their lives on hold because of the grief and guilt resulting from the suicide of their son, Philip, ten years earlier. This moribund existence is suddenly turned on end when Peter Ivanovich Kamenev, Zhenya's often negligent father, a Russian migr writer who claims both to be 100 years old and to once have had an opportunity to kill Joseph Stalin, comes to live with them. Unexpectedly, Kamenev's outrageous behavior and absurd personal inventions lead them to confront the things in their own lives they have avoided looking at since Philip's untimely death. Boswell has concocted a richly textured tale of love and loss, anger and forgiveness, and the truth that offers the possibility of redeeming a life. Recommended for all public libraries. Lawrence Rungren, Merrimack Valley Lib. Consortium, Andover, MA Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
The burdens of grief and secrecy borne by the people of a small Midwestern city are analyzed with keen compassion, humor, and insight in this luminous fifth novel from the author of Mystery Ride (1993) and American Owned Love (1997). The college town of Hayden, Illinois, excitedly prepares for the arrival of Peter Ivanovich Kamenev, a Russian dissident writer most famous for having had (and missed) an opportunity to assassinate Joseph Stalin. Peter, who also claims (falsely) to be 100 years old, plans to live with his middle-aged daughter Zhenya, a professor of political science; her husband, a union activist turned garbageman, known only as Morgan (his surname); their unmarried daughter Emma; and Emma's young son. Boswell skillfully widens the novel's scope, layering in the lingering aftershocks of the suicide, ten years earlier, of Emma's older brother Philip-and the emotional agendas of other Haydenites variously orbiting around the Morgans' history and continuing individual and internecine conflicts. Unusually full characterizations thus absorb us in the lives of Morgan's hulking, probably criminal garbage-truck partner Danny Ford; policeman Roy Oberman, a genuine "good man" who nevertheless may have caused Philip's death, and who harbors additional dark secrets; and Adriana East, the patrician widow who leads an abortive fight against the devastation of urban renewal, and succumbs to the elder Kamenev's wily Old World charm. These, and several other characters, are vivid originals (Peter Ivanovich is a wonderful combination of egomaniac, charlatan, and genuine visionary intellectual), and Boswell directs them surely toward a celebration climaxed by his characters' astonished"intuition that their lives had meaning and might still one day be redeemed." The texture of this replete portrayal of Middle America and its discontents suggests an inspired collaboration between Anne Tyler and John Cheever. Only a handful of Boswell's contemporaries have written anything better than Century's Son.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780312422318
  • Publisher: Picador
  • Publication date: 7/1/2003
  • Edition description: First Edition
  • Pages: 320
  • Sales rank: 1,483,811
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.50 (h) x 0.71 (d)

Meet the Author

Robert Boswell

Robert Boswell is the author of two story collections and five novels, including Mystery Ride and Crooked Hearts. He lives with his wife, the writer Antonya Nelson, and their two children, in Houston, Texas.

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Read an Excerpt


Strengths and weaknesses are the same thing, the valuable and the invaluable. -Peter Ivanovich Kamenev

It is amazing the things people throw away.

The doors leaned against a high plank fence in the narrow alley, old doors with arched windows, brass plates, and faceted glass knobs. A patina of frost made them glitter in the truck's headlights. Morgan drank the last sip of coffee from the lid of his thermos and climbed from the cab of the garbage truck. The doors had heft. Oak, he guessed, solid boards joined by a craftsman long dead. The windows showed runnels from the settling of the glass. In the predawn light, Morgan's breath eddied about the wrinkled glass, spreading over his distorted reflection like an erasure.

Morgan's partner rounded the truck to join him. "These are their front doors," Morgan said. "Why would people toss their front doors?"

Danny Ford didn't answer but began climbing the metal ladder to the roof of the garbage truck. Danny was a huge man, and the truck rocked as he climbed, creaking as if it might tumble over. Morgan was broad-shouldered himself, and tall. As he approached fifty, his body had become more dense and a fleshiness had entered his face, but he was still in good shape, and he had always been strong. Danny Ford, however, was in a different category. Just a kid, but built like a mountain.

Morgan gingerly lifted one of the doors and passed it up. Danny took it from him with one hand, raising it easily, holding it as one might hold a notebook, then turned and laid it gently on the roof of the truck. He wore the hard hat the city provided, and as he bent to take the second door, the hat fell off. Morgansnatched it out of the air just as Danny lifted the door from Morgan's hands. Like a circus act, Morgan thought.

"Hat," Danny called, holding the door at his side. Morgan tossed it up to him. Danny caught it with one hand, slipped it on, then placed the second door on top of the first and strapped them down with bungee cords. Despite his size and the fact that he was stoned, he maneuvered nimbly around the roof in the semidark.

Morgan's first name, weakened from disuse, had long ago fallen off, and he had never bothered to retrieve it. He was simply Morgan. Except for two semesters at a state university, he had lived all his life in Hayden, Illinois. The year was 1999, and Morgan had worked as a garbageman for almost a quarter of a century. It was not how he had planned to spend his life. Originally he had thought of the job as something to tide him over until the real terms of his future revealed themselves.

Still, despite his lengthy tenure in garbage, the things people threw away surprised him. He had hauled off refrigerators that merely needed cleaning, gas stoves cast off by people who decided to go electric, and electric stoves abandoned by those wanting gas. Appliances often bore signs that read fully operable or simply works. Boxes of toys appeared during spring cleaning, couches bearing a single stain, lamps requiring only a new cord. He had even come across laundry-clothes that needed nothing but a wash. He marveled at the array of trash, the mass of it, the variety, the value, the bulk.

He and Danny worked the remainder of the alley. There had once been a third member to the crew, but the city had cut back in anticipation of the new trucks they had ordered. One day Morgan would work alone in an air-conditioned cab, operating a mechanical arm that would raise and empty canisters made of recycled plastic. Danny Ford would be offered something in Parks and Recreation, Morgan guessed, or a janitorial position. Danny had made it through his probationary period. His job was secure.

Morgan pulled the truck into the street instead of the next alley. "The glass in those doors will crack if we don't drop them off directly," he said. The doors would go to the union store, a crafts and secondhand shop that Morgan himself had set up. Profits went into a fund used for everything from sponsoring a soccer team to helping out an employee whose daughter had leukemia. A box of donuts slid down the dashboard as Morgan wheeled the truck around the corner, and Danny slouched forward to save it.

Morgan stopped in front of the house that had discarded its doors, a graceful old brick place with a shabby lawn. A fir tree obscured his view, and he had to lean low to peer beneath the limbs. The new doors were made of glass with push bars at waist level.

"Grocery-store doors," Danny said.

"This job never disappoints,"Morgan replied. He shoved the idling truck into gear. Drop-offs at the union store were done on their own time, each trip costing them some clock. Their new contract gave them this flexibility. Morgan used it to work ten-hour days, four days a week. He turned onto Lincoln Street without stopping, catching the yellow portion of the traffic light. "So about my father-in-law," he said, and Danny moaned.

"Don't start your sales pitch this early," Danny said. "Makes me dread the whole day."

Morgan's father-in-law was moving in. There was going to be a reception on the day he arrived, which was a workday, and Morgan didn't think he could make it unless Danny agreed to come along in the truck. "Thought maybe you'd change your mind," Morgan said. "You really ought to meet him."

Danny Ford sank deeper into his corner, shrugging with the slightest movement of his shoulder. "What the fuck for?" Below the hacked-off sleeve of his shirt, a crude tattoo on his forearm proclaimed pussy in a blue scrawl that stood out against his pale skin. The boy never seemed to tan. Morgan assumed the tattoo spoke of desire and not cowardice. Danny Ford did not strike him as a coward. He had a criminal record-gang activities that had ended after he took this job. Morgan seemed to be one of the few people who could tolerate him; he had even fudged some figures to get Danny through the probationary period. Danny could do the work but was habitually stoned, chronically late, and missed a lot of Mondays. Now he snorted and knocked his head against the window, the hard hat tapping the glass. "What do I need with some thousand-year-old caveman?"

"He's just a hundred," Morgan said. "And my wife says he's lying about that." Zhenya Kamenev, Morgan's wife, was a college professor, a precise, exacting woman who nevertheless became a child in the presence of her father. It was the only thing about the old man's arrival that Morgan looked forward to. "She's got some ideas about him," he continued. "But why would anybody lie to make himself older?"

Danny had met Zhenya maybe once or twice. He would rarely condescend to visit Morgan's home. The men Morgan worked with-not kids like Danny, but the men he had known for decades-considered Zhenya to be his big mystery. Everyone who worked a job like this eventually had some kind of secret life. One man Morgan knew constructed elaborate birdcages. There was a Parks and Rec man who had a collection of antique pornography. Morgan had Zhenya: an attractive woman, but terrifying to most of the men he knew. Too sure of herself. Too smart and quick with her tongue. A political scientist, for Christ's sake. Why would a guy like Morgan wind up with a woman like that?

"I do like his deal," Danny said suddenly, shifting slightly in the corner to lean against the door. "Good story, the coulda-killed-that-prick story."

"That prick was Joseph Stalin," Morgan said. Then he added, "Lock your door if you're going to lean against it."

A response glided over Danny's face, something less than a smirk. He was a genius at the conservation of movement.

"He's famous," Morgan said. "Almost. He used to be on TV a lot, talking about one thing or another-civil rights, revolution, politics, that kind of stuff." He recalled watching baseball on television, the phone ringing, and Zhenya running in to change the channel because her father was on a political program, a panel of men in suits discussing some issue or other. Morgan remembered the rush of excitement they felt when her father's face appeared on the screen, and how Zhenya settled in next to him, tucking her feet beneath the hem of her skirt. Those memories were good but distant and entirely separate from dealing with the actual Peter Ivanovich Kamenev, who was a pain in the ass.

They turned onto Illinois Avenue, which took them under Interstate 55. The intersection of Interstates 55 and 155 inscribed a Y on the city of Hayden right in the center of Illinois. "Peter's uncle was one of the main guys in the Russian Revolution," Morgan said.

"Yeah, yeah," Danny said. "I don't need another history lesson."

"He's known a bunch of famous people."

"Like who?"

"Lenin and Stalin. Freud. Franklin Roosevelt. Warren Beatty. There's a picture of him with Einstein. He marched with Martin Luther King. Did . . . something with Albert Schweitzer. Fished with Hemingway. Bitched about whatnot with Eldridge Cleaver. Supposedly he went with Bill Clinton to a strip show when Clinton was governor of Arkansas. You name it, he's done it."

"He fucked Madonna?"

"Okay," Morgan said, "he missed a couple of national events, but not many. He doesn't like me much. Thinks I'm wasting my life. He was a big deal in the sixties. Still is in university circles." Morgan was going to share his house with the man and wanted to find a way to like him. "He halfway respects me for the union stuff, though he seems to wish I'd shot someone or gotten shot myself."

Danny showed his teeth at that.

"What? You like the idea of my getting shot?"

He didn't answer. The smile was childish, and Morgan was reminded of the limitations of their partnership. Some days Danny said nothing at all, just grunted and glowered. Morgan suspected that Danny would be in prison if he didn't have this job.

As they headed toward the union store, light began to enter the sky and Morgan, as he often did, let his thoughts turn to his son, focusing today on the boy's skill with a bicycle. Philip could stand on the seat of a moving bike as if it were a skateboard. Morgan still took pride in his son's talents even though he had been dead almost a decade. Every day Morgan called him to mind, on his best days and his worst, when he was with his grandson, Petey, at miniature golf, or when he had stood over his own father's casket.

Philip had killed himself. Morgan tried to think of it honestly, though he wouldn't use the word "suicide." It was supposed to mean the same thing, but it seemed different.

His son had gotten into an argument with other kids while playing ball. He had been twelve years old and high-strung, a boy who often got into tiffs. One of the neighbors sent him home. It had been a warm August day. Morgan had been across town, at the dump, on his last run of the afternoon-he had calculated the time and his placement in the world a hundred times. Zhenya heard Philip storm in. She was working in her study and sent him to his room-the same thing a thousand other parents were doing that summer's day. When Morgan got home, she told him about the incident. "He's going to have to learn the hard way," she said. Morgan couldn't remember what else his wife said, all the other sentences that kept him from going immediately to the boy's room. He just remembered the one: "He's going to have to learn the hard way."

When Morgan checked on Philip, he found him at the foot of the bed. He had wrapped an electrical cord-an extension cord-around the bedpost and then around his neck. When he passed out, he hanged himself. A prank. A little acting out. He had only meant to make a show, Morgan believed, to display his rage. Every kid now and again thought how sorry his parents would be if he were dead. Philip let it go too far. Not a suicide, Morgan believed, although his son had killed himself. A prank, but Philip was gone.

And he had been right. His parents were sad and sorry, and for years it seemed they would never get better. Morgan wasn't certain he and Zhenya could have survived together if not for their daughter. She had saved them by getting pregnant. At first it had seemed like another tragedy. Emma had been ten when her brother died and only fourteen when she became pregnant. Even now Morgan did not know who the father was. But the pregnancy had given them a new focus. Nothing could make up for the loss of Philip, but at times it seemed that one disaster had countered the other, a double negative.
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Reading Group Guide

Discussion Questions

1. If Century’s Son is a book about history both large and small, public and personal, how

does each character deal with the weight of his or her past, and what, by the end of the

novel, have they learned about where their pasts can take them?

2. Does Morgan and Zhenya’s neighbor, Roy Oberland, perceive himself as an honorable or

dishonorable man? Do you believe that he loves Emma, loves and respects his friends

Morgan and Zhenya? What similarities are there between Roy and Morgan’s co-worker

Danny Ford?

3. What are the trees of Forest Avenue, and the proposed widening of that avenue,

metaphors for? What does Zhenya’s opinion about the felling of the trees say about her


4. If Emma is not a great high-diver, she is a good one. What do her parents, grandfather,

and lover think of her as an athlete? What does it mean to leap off that board?

5. How do names function in the novel? Morgan has no first name; Peter Ivanovich has

many; his daughter Zhenya’s name is literally determined by her father’s heritage; Emma

will not speak the name of her child’s father… Discuss.

6. Why do you think the author chose to narrate portions from the point of view of

Morgan’s dog?

7. What secrets to Boswell’s characters keep? Are their secrets the same thing as their

histories? Is keeping a secret the same thing as lying?

8. Are these people’s visions of themselves faithful to how they are portrayed in the novel?


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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
( 3 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 3 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted January 23, 2004

    Loved it!

    I enjoyed this book to the very last word.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 13, 2002

    A must read for lovers of contempory american fiction

    This underappreciated writer deserves a bigger audience. As good (or better) than the best by Richard Ford and Michael Chabon

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 14, 2009

    No text was provided for this review.

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