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The Good Son by Michael Gruber

The Good Son (2010)

by Michael Gruber

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Showing 1-5 of 30 (next | show all)
Wow. ( )
  librarymary09 | May 24, 2014 |
Wow. ( )
  librarymary09 | May 24, 2014 |
Good history/thriller with colorful images of the mid-eastern culture. ( )
  JosephKing6602 | Feb 2, 2014 |
Very different than what I normally read - soldier going to save his mother in Pakistan. I was intrigued but it lost me a bit in the last 30 pages. ( )
  GaltJ | Jan 24, 2014 |
May 2, 2010
Salon Magazine
By Laura Miller

A spy novel for the 21st century

“I have been a kind of undercover person from birth almost,” says one of the two main characters in Michael Gruber’s “The Good Son,” “and I am bound to offend those who like neat classifications.” Not an improbable statement, coming from a major player in a spy thriller — if “The Good Son” can be accurately described as a spy thriller. It is that, and yet it’s a lot more. Like Theodore Laghari, the above-quoted “undercover person,” this novel slides in and out of conventional identities with a facility that would be disturbing if it weren’t so damn smooth. Adeptly plotted yet philosophical, worldly yet preoccupied with moral truth, it’s a book to provoke comparisons with John le Carré and Graham Greene, while at the same time eluding the ideological constraints that weigh so heavy on those masters.

Theo is the son of Farid, “a grayish presence who teaches the development of international law at Georgetown and spends a lot of time with his large collection of British Empire stamps,” and Sonia, a woman of infinite variety and a checkered past, currently working as a Jungian therapist. En route to a conference on the therapeutic aspects of regional conflict resolution in Kashmir, Sonia and her fellow luminaries are taken hostage by a band of mujahedeen in Pakistan’s North-West Frontier Province. Theo — who works as a “shooter” for a semilegal special-forces outfit he describes as the U.S. Army’s “own little CIA” — determines that the only way to save his mother is to engineer an incident that will trigger a U.S. attack on Pakistan, providing the cover for him to extract her from the village where she’s being held.

“The Good Son” constitutes a startling departure from Gruber’s last two novels, which were excellent, high-end literary thrillers featuring an assortment of self-thwarting, thoroughly Eurocentric characters chasing around after long-lost masterpieces by Shakespeare and Velázquez. “The Good Son” is so deeply engaged with Central Asia that a newcomer to his fiction might erroneously conclude that Gruber had spent most of his life studying the subject. What’s most impressive about “The Good Son” is the way the author gradually recalibrates his readers’ perspective to align with that of Theo and Sonia, people who, despite their American citizenship, unconsciously see Pakistan as the center of the world. This is despite the fact that Theo has been fighting on the side of the Great Satan, and Sonia has had a fatwa on her head for decades, the result of two memoirs she wrote about traveling the Muslim world disguised as a boy.

Both mother and son are chameleons; Theo can pass for an elite American soldier (Gruber has got the casual, can-do diction of this kind of guy down cold) even though he spent his childhood as the petted scion of a Lahore magistrate, and his youth in Afghanistan fighting the Soviets as the adopted son of a Pashtun tribal chief. Sonia, the daughter of a dispossessed Polish Catholic aristocrat, served as the apprentice to a traveling Sufi master during her transvestite adventures in the ‘Stans. She stumbled into her profession when a family tragedy precipitated a mental breakdown that landed her in a Swiss sanitarium.

While Theo lays the groundwork for his rescue scheme, Sonia adopts the desperate stratagem of dividing her captors; as is often the case in such rural villages, the militant force is made up of uneasy allies: the clannish native Pashtuns (“those wonderful, horrible people,” as one Westerner describes them), Taliban outsiders of questionable authority, and arrogant, fanatical Arabs, whom nobody really likes or trusts. She interprets dreams for the locals, challenges the chieftains on Koranic scholarship, and tries to keep her fellow hostages from turning on each other like crabs in a bucket. Meanwhile, back in the bowels of the National Security Agency in D.C., an analyst named Cynthia Lam, whose careerism is as implacable and mechanical as an algorithm, smells something fishy in the chatter her department has recently picked up about the theft of some Pakistani nuclear material.

Gruber sets up a delicate balancing act for himself, using the twisty plot and action scenes to power the novel through conversations in which the characters expound on Central Asia’s corrupt politics or Pashtun brigandry or the perversities of the intelligence bureaucracy. I can’t promise that this dialogue doesn’t occasionally wax a bit stilted — rather like the “As you know, Bob…” scenes in science fiction films where some minor mouthpiece character spells out the mission for the audience’s benefit. Fortunately, what Gruber’s characters have to say on these topics is always interesting enough to carry the day, and, really, how many of us already understand this stuff?

What Gruber’s people keep talking about isn’t so much a culture clash as the conceptual gulf between the rooted, interlocking lives of the Pashtuns and the nomadic, transcultural experience of Theo, Sonia and Cynthia. “Like all Americans,” Theo thinks of a girlfriend back in the States, “her whole thing is about privacy, pulling away from the parents to be yourself, whatever that happens to be,” while “that’s not the way it is in the real world, where I come from. There … boys still want to grow up to be like their fathers and grandfathers. To be young is nothing. To be young is not to have a job, a wife, to be broke all the time.” He can tell his American lover about growing up in Lahore, but “will she understand what it means?”

Details that at first seem merely quirky — Sonia’s Jungian practice, for example — prove themselves in the course of the novel to be tributaries emptying into Gruber’s theme: that enduring, atavistic longing for the meaning and passion to be found in the old ways of life. “Everyone loves feudalism in their hearts,” Theo tells himself, sounding like Greene’s Harry Lime, “which is why ‘The Godfather’ and ‘The Sopranos’ were huge hits. There has yet to be a movie about legislative markup or the courageous agents of the Federal Election Commission.” Life in “Pashtunistan” may be brutal and irrational, but for what Sonia calls “us primitives,” it’s mighty hard to quit.

It’s tempting, toward the end of “The Good Son,” to raise a protest against Sonia’s resignation; rationality, after all, has its upside! “The earth,” she acknowledges, “is ruled by people whose loyalties are to abstractions.” Even these, however, do like to go home to a juicy thriller. In its pages they look for intrigue and bloodshed, hair’s-breadth escapes, firefights and cruel vendettas. “The Good Son” is the rare novel that looks right back.
By Patrick Anderson
The Washington Post
May 10, 2010

Not all writers pursue fame and fortune via the Iowa Writers' Workshop, an MFA, an academic post and early stories in Granta and Ploughshares. Take, for example, Michael Gruber, one of the more interesting American novelists to appear in the past decade.

In his younger days, Gruber earned several degrees, including a PhD in marine sciences with a focus on the octopus. This led to work as a roadie with rock groups and as a chef with the Hog Farm commune, where he was famous for his roadkill dumplings. At a certain point he turned respectable and worked for the Dade County, Fla., government, then advanced to our fair city as a policy analyst and speechwriter in the Carter administration. He had literary dreams, however, and in 1988 became a full-time writer.

He collaborated with his cousin, the lawyer Robert K. Tanenbaum, on a series of legal thrillers about New York prosecutor Butch Karp. The Karp books were lively and fun and achieved some success, but after 15 of them Gruber tired of the ghostwriter's life and decided to write for himself. Then, the miracle: At around the age of 60, Gruber found his own voice. I reviewed -- and praised -- his first two novels -- "Tropic of Night" (2003) and "Valley of Bones" (2005) -- in these pages, and many other reviewers shared my enthusiasm for his work. His books are intellectual thrillers. They have variously explored witchcraft, the supernatural and varieties of religious experience with a generous seasoning of wit and erudition. Most have been bestsellers.

Gruber's seventh novel, "The Good Son," is perhaps his most ambitious. He seems to have learned a great deal about the religion and culture of the Muslim world, and he wants to examine that world alongside our own and to investigate why the two find themselves in such terrible conflict. He tells his story through a mother and her son.

Sonia Bailey, a shrewd and colorful American, worked in a circus as a teenager, then married a Pakistani lawyer named Laghari, whom she chanced to meet in Central Park. They moved to Lahore, Pakistan, where their son, Theo, was raised. When Theo was 10, after a family tragedy, he and his best friend ran off to become weapons carriers for the jihadists fighting the Russians in Afghanistan. At the age of 13, Theo became legendary when he single-handedly took a fortress and killed 60 Afghan government soldiers and their Russian advisers. At that point, his mother found him and took him back to America, where in time he joined the army.

As the novel begins, Sonia, by now a celebrated psychotherapist, is part of a group of activists who go to Pakistan for a conference on world peace and are promptly taken hostage by terrorists. Theo, now a professional assassin for a secret military agency, sets out to rescue his mother.

He knows the American government won't exert itself to save a bunch of peace activists, so he devises a plot to convince the National Security Agency that the captors also have a stolen nuclear weapon -- which, of course, would demand immediate military action. This leads to a nice satire of life among ambitious intelligence operatives, including one young woman who is sleeping with her middle-aged boss even as she plots to oust him.

My only complaint about the novel is that its middle section, when Sonia and her colleagues are held captive, drags a bit as they discuss at length religion, peace, poetry and various aspects of the Muslim psyche, and as Sonia charms her captors by interpreting their dreams. But Gruber serves up a slam-bang ending that involves a nuclear weapon, a gun battle, a plot to blow up Saudi oil terminals and many surprises. Theo, of course, must decide which country, the United States or Pakistan, is his true home.

The novel is highlighted by pithy, usually sardonic remarks about both East and West. Gruber savages Muslims for their treatment of women, as when an angry American tells the jihadists that they fight to preserve "not the modesty but the stupidity of women, and when you succeed these stupid women produce even stupider sons -- yourselves."

Theo has this to say about America's current adventure: "There was no Afghanistan the way there was a France or a Canada, there were only individuals and families and clans, and the Americans trying to make it different was like assembling a fighter plane out of wet toilet paper." If you happen to share Gruber's worldview, this is a novel that may teach you a lot about why the two sides -- "crusaders" and "jihadists" -- are locked in blind, seemingly endless war. ( )
  meadcl | Sep 6, 2013 |
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The phone rang at a little before one in the morning and I knew it was my mother.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0805091289, Hardcover)

New York Times bestselling author Michael Gruber, a member of "the elite ranks of those who can both chill the blood and challenge the mind" (The Denver Post), delivers a taut, multilayered, riveting novel of suspense

Somewhere in Pakistan, Sonia Laghari and eight fellow members of a symposium on peace are being held captive by armed terrorists. Sonia, a deeply religious woman as well as a Jungian psychologist, has become the de facto leader of the kidnapped group. While her son Theo, an ex-Delta soldier, uses his military connections to find and free the victims, Sonia tries to keep them all alive by working her way into the kidnappers' psyches and interpreting their dreams. With her knowledge of their language, her familiarity with their religion, and her Jungian training, Sonia confounds her captors with her insights and beliefs. Meanwhile, when the kidnappers decide to kill their captives, one by one, in retaliation for perceived crimes against their country, Theo races against the clock to try and save their lives.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 14:05:32 -0400)

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Somewhere in Pakistan, Sonia Laghari and eight fellow members of a symposium on peace are being held captive by armed terrorists. Sonia, a deeply religious woman as well as a Jungian psychologist, has become the de facto leader of the kidnapped group, while her son Theo, an ex-Delta soldier, uses his military connections to find and free the victims.… (more)

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