This is a novel about three generations of men in an American family — a grandfather, a father, and a son — focusing on those crucial years when each was between the ages of seventeen and twenty.
War, and its effects on those who survive, is the common element in the lives of these men and their women — World Wars I and II and the Vietnam War, wars that are profoundly the same yet compellingly different. And it is in the difference that the core of this extraordinary novel lies, for Evan Hunter has succeeded in portraying nothing less than the vast, changing heart and mind of America over the last fifty years, an America at once the same and radically altered. In this dramatic saga of the Tyler men and women, the reader discovers, with an immediacy more apparent than in any history, many of the ideas and feelings that took shape at the beginning of the century and grew with the passing years into the attitudes of today about ourselves, the world, prejudice, violence, justice, sex. love the family and personal commitment.
Sons tells a dramatic story about loving, hating, struggling, and dying; in short, about the endlessly fascinating adventure of life. It is the most ambitious and exciting novel Evan Hunter has ever written.
This is for my sons
TED MARK • RICHARD
who used to
ride a watersmooth-silver
and break onetwothrcefourfive pigeonsjustlikethat
he was a handsome man
and what i want to know is
how do you like your blueeyed boy
e. e. cummings
I felt like a spectator and a participant both.
From somewhere outside of myself, as if I were watching myself perform in the Friday night game films, I could see my own slow-motion image leaning into the huddle, sunshine splintering jaggedly from my helmet. Inside the shadowed huddle, dark and secret, the players’ faces took on a surrealistic look, foreshortened, faintly reflecting the green of the field, cheekbones smeared with grease, eyes narrowed in nothing less than murderous intent. Watching this from outside myself, seeing the homicidal glitter in the eyes of the team and in my own eyes too, I was almost tempted to laugh. But here, actually here in the huddle, the serious faces turned expectantly toward mine, the click of plastic as helmets touched and shoulders touched, there was nothing to laugh at, there was just a game to be won, although only against the junior varsity.
I whispered a Roger-Hook-Go, and we clapped out of the huddle, and rushed toward the line of scrimmage as the camera eye above me and outside of me somewhere panned the rows of naked sycamores flanking the field against a painfully blue sky. We lined up with the strong side on the left, Roger-Hook-Go calling for a fake pass to that side, with the right end cutting wide and fast on the outside instead, hooking around behind the cornerback’s block, and then running straight downfield to receive my long, accurate, touchdown pass, amen.
I crouched behind the center, seeing my own fanned expectant hands in huge closeup, as through the camera eye again, “One, two, three,” the ball was snapped. The j. v. were expecting a pass, the formation had told them that. I made no attempt to deceive them now, no attempt to fake a running play (seventeen-year-old Wat Tyler fades back in black-and-white slow motion, searching for a receiver, never once looking at his true receiver, a quarterback’s eyes are his own worst enemy), I turned to the left, faked a pass in that direction, with the weight on my rear foot, and then swung my left leg around, swiveling to locate the end just as he broke out of the hook and went sprinting downfield. The ball was level with my eyes now, fingers widespread over the laces, my right arm cocked and poised (Timing is essential to a passer, a voice says over the black-and-white film, he must lead his receiver and get the ball to him while he is still in the open). Turn, I thought, goddamn you, Frank,
and suddenly I was hit by two men, the right guard who had broken through, and a linebacker who had got in around the tackle. I tucked the ball in against my chest and allowed myself to go limp.
(In black-and-white, disrupted grass rises in soundless clods exploding on the air, rolling and tumbling slowly, Wat Tyler feels the weight of the linebacker shoving against his chest, the strong grip of the guard around his knees, relaxing, in black and white, he rolls with their force and hits the ground in cushioned unreality.)
The others had broken through the line now, I could feel the weight of additional bodies as they piled on, Yeah, get the quarterback, men, break his ass even though he’s our own school’s varsity quarterback, stomp him into the earth. I lay soft and still under the mound, the ball securely tight against my chest. My leg hurt, but I knew nothing had been broken, and the fear I always experienced before each tackle left with a rush as sweet and as clean as the November wind. I got to my feet, grinned, tossed the ball away, and ran quickly back to the huddle.
Something was wrong.
This was only a scrimmage between the varsity and the j.v., Friday afternoon’s warmup for the game against Greer tomorrow, having started at one p. m., and now only in its first quarter. But as I turned in mid-stride to glance at the high school’s white main building, sleekly rectangular on a knoll against the piercing sky, I saw far too many teachers and students coming down the steps and heading for the bleachers, why would a mere scrimmage be attracting such a crowd? Something was wrong, and yet the coaches paced nervously before the bench as usual, Mr. Cowley wore his long red muffler with usual affectation, the team was waiting as usual, but something was wrong.
(Wat Tyler leans into the huddle. Again, there is the click of plastic as white helmets join in muted strategy. “Same play,” he says, “Roger-Hook-Go, on two,” and ends with the word “Pass” — it is always advisable to end the call with the type of play, so that linemen missing the pattern will at least know whether the team is running or passing.)
We clapped out of the huddle (but something was wrong) and ran toward the line of scrimmage. From the corner of my eye, I could see Mr. Cowley talking to Miss Huber, who had come out of the school without a coat. The coach was not watching the play, he was instead nodding in serious attention, and now more students and teachers were coming out of Main, was it a fire drill? I spread my hands fanlike behind the center’s ass, “One, two,” I said, and the ball was snapped, and again I turned and ran directly back for five yards, wheeled, faked my eyes to the false receiver on the left, stepped to the right to avoid the opposing guard who had again come crashing through the line, ball back, the right end had hooked and was clear, I had about two seconds to get off the pass. The line was buckling, I was forced to go back deeper, and saw that my receiver was being double-teamed, the little j. v. bastards had second-guessed the repeat play. I looked far downfield for my alternate, found him covered man-for-man, and abruptly cut left to try a run through the strong side.
I was ganged before I covered three yards. They hit me from every possible direction this time, fear spit into my head, I thought they’d break every bone in my body. Pumping my legs wildly, I tried to break away, hands clutching at my jersey, “Oh God!” I heard someone say, and then I was falling. (The ground seems very far away this time, the sky wheels overhead, Hold the ball, he tells himself in litany against the fear, Hold the ball, and clutches it to him like a woman. A helmet smashes into his face guard, his neck snaps back, he thinks for a moment he has broken something in his spine, and then the ground hits him, and he is splayed flat against the unyielding earth by live hundred pounds of muscle and bone.)
The pile-on began.
I clung to the ball against my chest, I could smell the tumbled earth and grass, that’s right you little shits, I thought, kill your star quarterback, and smiled, and lay still and helpless, and thought suddenly of something Mr. Jarrel had said in American History I, about Giles Corey being pressed to death in Salem, Massachusetts, because he would not admit he was a witch, rock after rock being piled upon his chest, and all he ever said was, “More weight,” and had died for his refusal to betray his own conscience. I lay still and waited, my eyes squeezed shut. They were climbing off me now. I opened my eyes, saw an untangling scramble of cleats and muscles, fallen socks and grass-stained knee pads. Free, I got to my feet and grinned. I had read somewhere that Jim Brown always grinned when he got up after a tackle, grinned and walked slowly back to the huddle, no matter how hard he’d been hit.
An odd buzz hovered over the field. I thought I was hearing things at first, thought they had done something to my brain. I tossed the ball away and began sprinting back for the huddle.
There was no huddle.
Mr. Cowley was on the field, and he was whispering to the referee, and the guys were all talking at once, not standing with that patient hands-on-hips posture of football players waiting for a decision, but gesturing wildly instead. I could hear them saying, “The head, the head,” and I listened in bewilderment and fear because I was sure now that something terrible had happened to
that they were all talking about
head, that maybe my neck was twisted at a funny angle, maybe there was a line of blood trickling from under my white helmet. The playing field was crowded with people now, what were they all doing on the field? The buzz was incredible, the referee finally blew his whistle to stop it, and a hush fell over the field, broken only by the keening of the November wind and the empty rattle of the sycamores lining the field.
Mr. Cowley cleared his throat. He seemed embarrassed.
“We’re calling the game,” he said.
“I cannot reconcile the events of this past week,” my grandfather said, tall and white-haired at sixty-three, sitting at the head of the table, the family patriarch, though I could sense my father’s displeasure with the old man for taking his usual seat. “To believe that in this day and age, in a country as sophisticated as America...”
“Is there any cranberry sauce?” one of the twins asked. She was my cousin, eight years old, the prettier of the two girls, though frankly neither of them was worth a glance, even in the third grade. She smiled at my grandfather because she knew she had interrupted him, and he reached over to touch her straight brown hair for just an instant before Aunt Linda said, “Your grandfather’s speaking, Mary. You can just wait for the cranberry sauce.”
“I’ll get it,” my mother said, and rose from the table.
My mother’s name was Dolores, and the “Lolly” was a hangover from the days of her youth. I saw a small twinge of displeasure in her eyes as my aunt used the name now, but she recovered immediately and said, “I want to see how
doing, anyway,” referring to the new maid, a priceless gem from Georgia. She put down her napkin, and then left the dining room and went into the kitchen. The other twin, Marcia, yelled, “I want some, too, Aunt Lolly!” and my mother shouted, “Yes, Marcy!” from the kitchen, and Uncle Stanley said, “I want some, too,
“Please!” Marcy shouted to the closed kitchen door.
“The whole thing was a spectacle,” my father said. He said it very softly, I knew that voice, as if he hadn’t been patiently waiting through the twins’ nonsense for this moment when he could openly challenge Grandpa sitting in his place at the head of the table. Grandpa’s brows went up just a trifle. There was a glint of humor in his blue eyes. The two men squared off across two yards of white tablecloth. “That whole damn funeral was a theatrical production,” my father said.