Stories don’t get much more modern than Vincent Traughber Meis’s First Born Sons. Set against the COVID pandemic, the Black Lives Matter movement and its violent backlash, and the California wildfires, Meis’s latest novel had me marveling at how it was possible for him to chronicle such recent history and get the book through production in short order until it hit me that all happened three years ago. Somehow, 2020 feels more recent. I guess it was the lingering impact of what was probably the most tumultuous year in modern memory. Meis takes us back there with all the familiar uncertainty, fear, heartbreak, anger, and even moments of absurdity. A diverse cast of queer and non-queer characters also provides readers the opportunity to see something of themselves on a more personal level.
First Born Sons has the feel of a sweeping family saga, in part because that year encompassed so much. Each chapter takes place in the recent past, but point of view characters span three generations and some are products of historical traumas such as Black persecution in the 1960s South and the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. It’s a uniquely American story that speaks to repeated cultural patterns, from queer suppression and the country’s long standing problem with racism to worsening natural disasters.
As suggested by its title, Meis’s novel focuses on the eldest sons of an extended family, and those characters were carefully chosen to reflect the evolving meanings of manhood. Many of the male characters are queer, including M, who is transitioning from female to male. Others are young adults who are feeling out their identities. Devlin, a twenty-year-old with mixed race parents, is happily enchanted by the sexual attention he receives from both women and men. Jason, a fifteen-year-old, is leaning into white male self-righteousness and militancy. Those characters alternate with mothers, sisters, and younger siblings who are each, at times, point of view characters with important stories to tell. The result is a loose web of storylines that gradually intersect at a portentous family birthday party.
Lamar, a young, Black, free-spirited, blind gay man is introduced first, escaping from a cabin in the Northern California forest beset by wildfire. He has collected the equipment for his livelihood as a deejay but is stopped by patrolling policemen who presume that he’s a looter. His older friend and the owner of the cabin, Byron, arrives and tries to defend Lamar, but it takes the intervention of a neighbor, George, to persuade the policemen to release both Lamar and Byron. From there, we learn of Byron and Lamar’s interconnected families and tragedies in New Orleans, both men having left behind a bitter past. For Lamar, he traded out the homophobia of his Louisiana hometown for the subtle and overt racism of the Bay Area along with the ableist tendencies of its gay community.
Interracial situations permeate the lives of many of the characters. Augie and Ruben, an upper-middle-class white/Latino gay couple are raising a thirteen-year-old Black son, Colton, who has recently decided he wants to have a relationship with his Black surrogate mother. AJ is in the midst of a custody battle with the father of her two sons, who is drawing their eldest, Jason, into white supremacist ideology. Meanwhile, she’s having an affair with an undocumented Mexican man, Chato, who is trying to reform from a criminal past.
M, who was born Augie and AJ’s older sister, is finally ready to do something about a long-deferred dream to live as a man and must break the news to her husband of twenty-five years. As 2020 would have it, M faces that conversation while stuck on a cruise ship in which COVID has broken out and forced everyone into lockdown in their cabins.
The dilemmas faced by these characters ring true for our times, touching upon the increasing freedom to love who we want, identify how we want, and create the families that we want, while posing necessary questions. How do two gay fathers prepare a Black teenager for survival in a racist world when neither of them have experienced anti-Black racism? What can a divorced woman do to mitigate her ex-husband’s white nationalist influence on her son when that son is badly in need of a relationship with his father? Are gay men beholden to a conventional moral code when it comes to pursuing sex and love with men who are partnered, however ambivalently?
There’s much more plot to the book, but given its surprises, I recommend discovering it with fresh eyes. Meis has created an enjoyably provocative story about contemporary queer families that’s a tribute to all of us who made it through the past three years as well as the ones we’ve lost.
Reviewed by Andrew J. Peters
One response to “First Born Sons – Vincent Traughber Meis (Spectrum Books)”
It is the highest honor when a reviewer gets what a writer is trying to do in a book. This is not just the best review I’ve received for First Born Sons, but perhaps the best review I’ve received for all my books. Thank you Andrew J. Peters and Out in Print.