Kampman and Breathwaite have one thing in common: Each has a son who is in, or beginning to be in, a state of rebellion. Jes Breathwaite, 21 years old, is further along than 17-year-old Adam Kampman, who is just now discovering the pleasures of life that his demanding father tries to deny him. With Kampman the issue is control; he wants his son to be himself cloned and will do whatever he has to make that happen. With Breathwaite, on the other hand, it’s a matter of love. He is bored by Jes’s two older brothers, leading conventional middle-class Danish lives, but hopes that Jes will be something more interesting and better. Yet Jes spurns every effort his father makes to start him on that path toward success.
Instead he drifts: “He’d dabbled in post-modernism, and he’d dabbled in post-traditionalism and in post-colonialism, and he’d dabbled in post-ethnicity and in behaviorist post-ethicism and no doubt in post-postism, too, leading up to pre-ism, retro-ism, which could end only in now-ism, and then on to neo-nowism ad infinitum, until time stops its survey of all the world.” Not merely is he “a very bright kid with an understanding of everything and a grasp of nothing,” but he’s rejected all his father’s efforts to get his foot in the door at the Tank and works, instead, “in a bloody key-and-heel bar run by a Pakistani.” Breathwaite hates to see “his youngest son wearing a blue workman’s smock and grinding a key on some kind of lathe,” and:
“[His wife] would call him a snob if she could hear his thoughts, but it was not snobbishness; it was respect for the boy’s intelligence and fear of how he was branding himself in this country, where a person who played at being an unskilled laborer ran a very real risk of ending with that as his only option. In the United States, you could reinvent yourself repeatedly. You could probably do it here, too, but only with great effort. Here you were expected to have your papers in order. It was a small country. Every failure was noticed, registered. There were people everywhere who remembered you, and opinions were seldom revised for the better.”
The problem is that Jes is every bit as hard a case as Kampman is. Kennedy may admire and sympathize with Jes’s professed idealism, but Jes is a selfish, self-centered young man whose real interest is only in his own pleasure and who has an especially unpleasant cruel streak. When immature, virginal Adam brings a girl to Jes’s apartment, Jes has her in bed in no time. Jalal, his boss at the lock-and-key shop, is uncommonly kind and generous to him; Jes rewards this by mocking Jalal behind his back, scoring easy points with other local idlers. In his way, he’s even more of a horror than Kampman is, which is to say he’s just about impossible to like.
While Jes fritters his youth away, his father is left to ponder what is to become of the autumn of his own life. His working life is shattered, his marriage is uncertain, the son he most loves has repudiated him as “a dead man who had never lived.” He’s a good man who deserves better.