This odd, and oddly hypnotic, novel is very much in the American vein, dealing as it does with fathers and sons, wealth and power, independence and social rank. Its roots can be traced -- with less difficulty than Craig Nova may realize -- to the Holy Trinity of Faulkner, Fitzgerald and Hemingway, and, of more recent vintage, to the early work of Thomas McGuane. But Nova is original as well as derivative, and there is no getting around the central truth that in "The Good Son" he has told a powerful, convincing story.
It takes place in the years immediately after World War II, with occasional flashbacks to that conflict. Pilot Chip Mackinnon, the protagonist, was shot down over North Africa and held in a Nazi prison until the end of the war; the experience is the central one of his still-young life, and having survived it he tends not to get excessively excited about anything that comes his way in the comparative calm of civilian life.
Chip's father, Pop Mackinnon, is a self-made man of wealth, a customs lawyer with an office and apartment in New York and a farmhouse outside the city near the Delaware and Mongaup rivers; his mother is a gentle, reticent, somewhat fearful woman who retreats from her overbearing husband into a notebook she keeps on flora and fauna. Though his mother is quite content to let Chip lead his own life however he wants to, his father has larger aspirations for him.
Specifically, he wants Chip to marry well and thereby to establish the Mackinnon family in society. To his wife he says: "Do you know that my origins were humble and that I wanted Chip to take the sting out of them? Do you understand?" The young woman whom Chip quite clinically selects, Carolyn Cooke, seems to Chip's mother an appropriate choice:
"Carolyn carried herself, and moved her hands and shoulders, and smiled in such a way that made me feel that all of us were a little more real than usual, and she had the aura, too, that nothing bad or terrible could ever happen to her, that such things had been excluded from that rare and beautiful world in which she lived. Of course this was an illusion."
Of course. What happens is that Chip becomes passionately taken with Jean Cooper, a young woman from Ohio having no family background worth turning one's nose at. She wants to escape from Ohio and poverty, Chip wants to escape his father's remorseless demanding and bullying; both want to escape from the harsh realities of the world into an erotic paradise of their own. They take Chip's car and begin to drive west -- pursued, it soon develops, by Pop, whose passion to bring his son back into the fold is compounded and complicated by the desire he feels for Jean, "her resilience and strength, that will which seemed to need no justification, that ash- colored hair and the smile which said, I can make you feel so good, so good . . ."
But for all of these people, cold reality soon crashes in. When Jean shouts at Chip -- "I have never seen polo. I do not draw dividends. I do not own land!" -- it is an acknowledgment that barriers of wealth and class are not lightly or easily crossed in classless America. It is not possible to "deny the world's existence." Jean emerges into the world and soon thereafter leaves Chip to his inheritance and his fate; having declared his independence, he must now accept his responsibilities.
As the passages quoted above suggest, Nova is a member of that large group of American writers for whom the ghost of William Faulkner is a living, breathing, dominating presence. An especially blatant example of the problem: "There was something in the bright aura about her (and I made no mistake here: there was one and it suggested something beautiful and alive and terrible, too) that made me want glory or fame or to do anything that was required . . ." The novel's climactic hunting scene has heavily Faulknerian overtones, with a dash of Hemingway thrown in; Nova's reflections on wealth and social aspiration have the ring of Fitzgerald, and the setting's blend of wealth and macho violence suggests McGuane's first novel, "The Sporting Club." That's a heavy load of influence for one novel to bear, and it often shows.
Yet "The Good Son" is a novel of genuine intelligence. Its characters are interesting and various; when Faulkner recedes into the background, its prose can be original and muscular. Nova's depiction of the relationship between Pop and Chip Mackinnon is especially deft, with the normal father-son tensions, rivalries and affections compounded by the larger questions of money and class that are the novel's chief concerns. "The Good Son" is an ambitious work that does not fulfill all of its author's hopes, but it is purposeful, serious and honorable.