(WH Allen & Co, 1972)
Some years ago, I was chatting to a colleague and friend (now a City Editor on a national newspaper) and talk turned to that deeply dire (in a competitive field) number by the Doors, ‘The End’, and its truly self-indulgent lyrics:
‘I want to kill you.’
My friend snorted. ‘Oh sure,’ she said, adding: ‘I want to kill you as soon as you finish bankrolling my gap year and paying off my student loan.’
Father Pig is – spoiler alert – the story of five ultra-radicalised drop-outs from Columbia University in New York who form a cell entitled Oedipus Complex and agree to kill their parents, each cell member taking one of the other’s mothers or fathers, or both. Apparently, offing mum and dad is an act of ‘historical necessity’.
Unlike Doors windbag Jim Morrison, they go about their task with deadly determination.
The first parent to have an inkling of what is happening is Floyd Breed, a fisherman and hunter in a coastal village in North Carolina, who ‘had the coiled-spring look of a man who had spent most of his life out of doors … He walked with the silent tread of a man anxious not to call attention to himself, his movements economical.’ A foiled knife attack on him in his home, by someone he is sure he has met before at a college party, gets him thinking.
Breed, a widower, heads to New York to discuss his fears with Charles Livingstone. Breed’s daughter Eva had dated Livingstone’s son Kenneth and perhaps still was, it having been some time since he was in touch with her. Perhaps Kenneth’s father will know something.
Livingstone is pretty much the polar opposite of Breed, a successful show-business agent, wealthy, divorced and with no shortage of young women willing to spend the night with him.
Suave and handsome Livingstone is initially unimpressed as Breed is ushered into his office: ‘The man obviously looked and felt out of place. There was a foreign, almost eccentric look about him from his unstylish haircut to the ill-fitting sports coat he wore.’
He is even less impressed by Breed’s half-formed theory that their children have gone seriously off the rails. So, asks Breed, there’s no reason to fret?
‘Absolutely not. Kenneth and Eva – oh, they’re off somewhere doing their thing, as they say, all those things you and I wanted to do when we were their age, but never had time for. Or dared, Mr Breed,’ he ended smiling.
Breed declares his determination to track down Eva, Livingstone, to his annoyance, feels obliged to go with him and a brief odyssey is under way through the counter-cultural New York of that time. They make little progress, but then Breed sees a television news report about a couple murdered by shotgun blasts in Texas, with the words ‘Father Pig’ chalked on the dining table, the very same words used by Breed’s failed attacker.
There is a second unsuccessful attempt on Breed’s life on the New York Subway, with the same two words from his would-be assassin, and he spells out to one of the other parents what he believes is happening:
‘They’re going to try to kill you too.’
‘Who’s going to kill me, Mr Breed?’
‘Our children, Mr Ensinger. They’re murderers, all of them…’
Of the killers’ catch-phrase, another parent asks Breed what it means. ‘“Father Pig? It means us.”’
Livingstone revises his view of Breed, deciding him to be a good man to have on his side: ‘Breed had hacked out a solid place for himself. Defeat for him was a temporary condition; Breed knew how to climb back on his feet, to go on being the best that was in him.’
By contrast, Livingstone views his own hedonistic lifestyle with something approaching disgust:
All those girls in all those beds, all that sweating and groaning, all that semen sent splattering against diaphragms and coils and the magic of the pill. How useless, all of it … How nice to make the some woman pregnant, to give the act of love some meaning. Mutual jerkoffs was what he had come to.
Livingstone still resists the idea that Kenneth is a murderer: ‘Kenneth, his friends, his generation, the best of the best. They were the hope, exceptional and gifted young people.’
Or are they?
Breed’s killers are, alas, third time lucky, and Livingstone revises his view when he learns of Breed’s death. A bungled attempt on the life of his ex-wife, now remarried, converts him to the view that Breed was right.
He tells his ex-wife and her new husband:
‘They’re convinced of our evil, and of their own good and purity. So naturally they act like gods, the ultimate judges of who shall live and die … They see us as agents of the devil, evolutionary dinosaurs to be wiped out by a new Children’s Crusade.’
The cell members never entirely convince, largely because Livingstone seems rather better at rationalising their actions than they are. The novel ends with Kenneth and father battling it out at Livingstone’s rural retreat, son trying to kill father, and the two fighting each other to a standstill: ‘Soon Kenneth gave up and they lay close to each other panting and still, neither daring to move. Or let go. Waiting for the terror and rage to fade away.’
In real life, the Weather Underground of that time, despite a bombing campaign, managed to kill nobody, although three of its members died in an accident. The epicentre of homicidal spoilt-brattery proved to be not the United States, but West Germany during the days of the Baader-Meinhof Group.
In summary, a very good read, if a period piece, made more satisfying somehow by knowing the French edition was entitled Cochons de parents. But I had to smile when Livingstone advances this partial justification for the killers: ‘“[W]e must seem the essence of corruption. Considering the state of the world, he may be right.”’
Some years ago, Julie Burchill, commenting on the 1950s and ’60s youth-whinge about how the older generation had really screwed up the world, riposted with words to the effect: ‘I thought they’d saved it, by defeating Hitler. Silly me.’