KINGDOMS traces the extraordinary journey of a father and son, both of whom -- as if to suggest that something about their experience is characteristic of the relationship itself -- go unnamed. In 1950 a professor of English literature at Amherst loses his wife in an automobile accident; soon afterwards, a colleague and friend who had failed to get tenure commits suicide. For reasons which we do not at first fully understand -- the story is narrated by the son, who is only 11 at the time -- the man outfits a truck for travel and sets out with his son across the country. Though eventually they pass through Amherst again, they do not in any essential way ever return. For six years they wander at random, picking up odd jobs, traveling where the spirit moves them, while the father pursues an obsessive idea.
The father in many ways was a product of his time, and intellectural who was brought up through the '30s, when old idols were being shattered and new ones being formed. After graduating from college and making a false start in journalism, he resolved to absorb the world on its terms, to continue his education himself, and say his vocation as writing a particular kind of personal essay, one in which "the subject and the object would coincide." When, as a reader, he found just such a correspondence in the writings of Ben Jonson, he enrolled in graduate school and plunged into a study of the Renaissance. Though given energy by the intellectual movements that surrounded him, he did not fully accpet any of the political solutions to the problems of the day; he was a humanist who lived beyond politics. He found a woman who, in her field, shared his ideas, a young architect who believed that architecture was not a pure art, but one which had a responsibility to the humanity of those it served. As a woman and a rebel, she never became an established architect, but spent her life trying to goad establishment architects into seeing her views. They married, had a son, and pursued their separate careers.
It is this past which the father, in his sudden flight with his young son, rejects. The shattering experience of that one year had convinced him that literature, philosophy, all man's elaborate systems of ordering, are a lie, that none takes account of the randomness of experience and none, in particular, gives a true account of man's suffering. There is betterness to this conviction, but it does not involve a rejection of life. He sets out zestfully on his journey, as if to test his hypothesis. To doubt all systems of order requires a leap just as blind as that of the life of faith, and one in some ways more courageous. The life he led raised incessant doubting to the level of a value system.
The most moving aspect of this story is the relationship between father and son. We see the narrative through the son's limited perspective, and it moves skillfully between the past and present while the man and boy have experiences which confirm the father's theory and while the father, with his immense erudition, lectures the son. The man's ideas are far beyond what an adolescent can grasp, but in some way the boy does take them in, trying to discover through them who his father is, who his mother was. The relationship between father and son, teacher and pupil, has become, literally, the boy's whole life, and the enormous love between the two of them, as well as the ambiguities that eventually develop, are alive in line after line of the book.
In the last third of Kingdoms, the story becomes the son's. He and his father settle for a time in Atlantic City, a place which, with its decaying buildings, its hungry pursuit of the fleeting tourist trade, seems an apt locale in which to study the father's theories. There they meet a memorable black woman who ekes out a living by hawking produce and by fishing, who swaps stories with the father, and who lives in "the fabulous amorality of life." But the son also meets a young girl and an old man who, in the unlikeliest of places -- the scraggly back marshes that border the ocean -- show him there is some value in attachment to a place and attachment to a purpose. In a hundred-page stretch which includes the most memorable scenes of the novel -- long conversations within the primitive beauty of the marshes, visits to the old fisherman's shanty, an afternoon when the boy and girl discover the love that is concealed in their differences -- the son finds not that his father is wrong, but that being right may not be enough.
Barry Targan in his earlier short fiction and in this first novel is a careful writer with a close eye for detail, a deep love of nature, a love of kinds of work and the details of methods of working. Like the father in the story, he has attempted a piece of writing in which the subject and object coincide, the theme is perfectly emboided in the characters, and to say that he has not quite succedded is hardly to criticize his novel. He has not struct this perfect balance: his writing his more effective when it discusses the ideas of the father than when it develops him as a character. In general, Kingdoms works most successfully as a novel of ideas. At times, too, Targan's language is too figurative for my taste; he extends a metaphor until it loses its effectiveness. Yet these flaws, if they are flaws, are those of a high seriousness which few enough writers even attempt. Kingdoms ultimately is a powerful novel of a moving relationship between a father and son, and of a courageous intellectual pilgrimage.