The Good Son: A Novel

The Good Son: A Novel

by Michael Gruber


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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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780312674946
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication date: 02/15/2011
Pages: 416
Sales rank: 846,712
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

Michael Gruber, author of New York Times bestseller The Book of Air and Shadows, The Forgery of Venus, Night of the Jaguar, Tropic of Night, and Valley of Bones, has a Ph.D. in marine sciences and began freelance writing while working in Washington, D.C. as a policy analyst and speech writer. Since 1990, he has been a full-time writer. He is married and lives in Seattle, Washington.


Seattle, Washington

Date of Birth:

October 1, 1940

Place of Birth:

New York, New York


B.A., Columbia University, 1961; Ph.D., University of Miami, 1973

Read an Excerpt

The Good Son

A Novel

By Michael Gruber

Henry Holt and Company

Copyright © 2010 Michael Gruber
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4299-4716-9


The phone rang at a little before one in the morning and I knew it was my mother. I didn't even have to look at the number there on the little cell-phone screen, I just said, "Mom."

Next to me, my not-really-girlfriend, Gloria, heaved over and jammed a pillow on her head and said nasty stuff about people calling in the middle of the night. I ignored this and added, "Anything wrong?"

My mother said, "No, of course not. Why do you always ask that when I call you?"

"Because that's what people do when they get a call at one A.M. You forgot about the time zones again."

"I didn't forget. I thought soldiers always rose at dawn."

"When they're on duty," I said, "which I'm not. I'm at Gloria's place. What's up?"

"I'm at Heathrow on a plane for Zurich. I'll be gone for a couple of weeks. Could you tell your father?"

"Why don't you tell him yourself? I think they still have phone service in the District of Columbia."

"Please, Theo. If I call him we'll get into a big argument, and I don't need that just now."

"Because you're going to Zurich for a few weeks? Why should he object to that?"

"Because I'm not going to Zurich. I'm just changing planes there. I'm going to Lahore."

That stopped me; sweat popped on my arms where they stuck out of the quilt. I said, "Lahore? Mom, you can't go to Lahore. There's a fatwa out on you. You can't go to the Muslim world anymore."

"Oh, don't be silly! In any case, I'll be traveling on my Pakistani passport; no one will bother S. B. Laghari, the Pakistani begum, the professor's wife, in a proper head scarf. Besides, I'm not going to Iran. It was a Shi'a fatwa anyway. No one is going to pay any attention to it in Pakistan."

"You know, that's right," I said. "Only thirty million Shi'a in Pakistan and the ayatollahs are right next door and Sunnis and Shi'as have been killing each other in Punjab for the last twenty years and there's a heavily armed Shi'a militant group based in Lahore. ... Are you fucking out of your mind?"

"Please don't speak to me like that, Theo," she said, after a pause. "It's unseemly. I'm your mother."

I felt my face flush. She was right. The army messes with your manners. I said, "Look, could you just, like, think about this like a rational person? Why don't I get on a plane, we'll sit down, we'll talk —"

"Darling, there's nothing to talk about. I'm going. I'll be back before you know it."

"No, this is insane!" I shouted into the tiny perforations. "How can you do stuff like this to me? You've always done it and you're still doing it. For God's sake, I'm wounded! I'm your wounded son. You're supposed to be here, taking care of me, not going to Lahore."

This was disgraceful, I knew, pathetic, but it was one of my buttons. Unfortunately, my mother has guilt handles the size of a little girl's earrings. She said, "Well, if you'll recall, I did come to your side when you got back. But it was made perfectly clear that I was in the way."

Not true, although what she meant was that she was not up to much in the nurturing department. My father is the main nurturer in our family, and she knows it and it makes her feel bad.

"I have to go," my mother said. "They're closing up the plane. I'll call you from Lahore. Remember to call Farid."

I was still trying to talk her out of it when she said a firm good-bye and I was listening to the ether.

I cursed in a couple of languages, and this brought Gloria into full wakefulness. She sat up, rubbed her eyes, and smoothed her long hair away from her face. She said, "That's the one problem with the cell phone, in my opinion. You bring some bozo home with you and he can talk to other women when he's actually lying in bed with you. Which one was that?"

"It was my mother, Gloria."

"That might be even worse. Why does she call you in the middle of the night?"

"She was calling from London. My mother is a famous world traveler who doesn't get the whole time-zone thing."

"And this is why you started screaming?"

I told her why.

"So what? She's a grown-up. Why shouldn't she go to Lahore? Where is Lahore anyway?"

"It's in the Punjab. In Pakistan."

"That's where you're from."


She'd propped herself up on one elbow and she had that look, her pumping-for-information look, on her smooth, tan, flat face, with that hair hanging loose and thick on either side. Maybe you have to grow up in a Muslim country to understand the erotic appeal of long black hair. It still knocked me out to see American women just walk through the streets with their hair hanging down for anybody to see, a little fossil of my upbringing. Especially this kind of hair, Asian hair, thick, glossy, blue-black, although Gloria is a Latina and not from where I'm from.

I said to the look, "It's a long story."

"You say that a lot," she said. "Mr. Mysterious. If you think that makes you more, like, attractive, you're wrong."

"You're delving, Gloria. I thought we were going to keep it simple and shallow."

"Asking about your mom isn't delving. Delving is who did you go out with and what did you do with them? Or, you know, what you did in the war."

"You want to know this? It's interesting to you?"

"Yeah. We have to talk about something. I told you about my folks, my brother, and all that shit, so you tell me about yours. It's what normal people do. We can't have sex all the time."

I snaked my hand under the quilt. "We could try," I said.

She moved her legs to make a space for my hand. "Yes, but tell me: Why can't she go back to Pakistan?"

"Okay," I said, and suppressed a sigh. "My mother is Sonia Bailey."


"She used to be pretty famous back in the seventies. When I was about three she left me in Lahore and traveled through what was then Soviet Central Asia, disguised as a Muslim boy. She wrote a book about it that got a lot of play, especially from the feminists. Then she hung around Lahore for a few more years, and when I was ten she went off again, but this time she went on the haj, the pilgrimage to Mecca."

"Also as a boy?"

"Yeah, and that was the problem. She polluted the holy places with her transvestism. The Muslim world went crazy. Death sentences got issued."

"Like that guy, what's-his-name?"

"Salman Rushdie, but this was way before that."

"And nobody found out she was a woman?"

"No, not until she wrote a book about it. She's small and wiry, like me."

"No tits, huh?"

"Pretty flat. Narrow hips, too. And she had an artificial dick."


"Uh-huh. She had it made in Lahore. She could pee through it, so when the guys saw that, it closed the deal; she was one of the boys."

"Did she take you along on that trip?"

"No, she left me again," I said and I didn't want to talk about it anymore then so I got to stroking her in the way she liked, which she'd already told me about. Gloria is good with the details. She lives a very controlled life, and after a few minutes of this she said, "Jump on me, quick," and I did.

After we finished, she popped immediately out of bed. I always thought women liked to cuddle after — that's their favorite part, is what I understood — but not Gloria. She was getting ready for her early shift. I heard a shower going for what couldn't have been more than ninety seconds and got strobelike sightings of brown skin and sensible underwear, and there she was in her pink scrubs with her long hair coiled and pinned into a shining black bun.

She leaned over — a quick kiss — and said, "Toss the key through the mailbox; don't forget, okay?"

I said I wouldn't and she was gone in a flash of pink. A minute later I heard the sound of her old beater starting up, and off she rattled.

Gloria is a nurse at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, in the north end of Washington, D.C., where I'm being treated, and she was a soldier too, once, and is now a civilian employee. She is the child of Mexican immigrants and a big striver, which I am definitely not. I am what they call a lifer; I will probably be in the military my whole life. When your average troop says this, it means twenty-and-out or thirty-and-out, retire on the pension, maybe get another job, and have a pretty nice life — what with the benefits and all — but I will probably get killed, considering what I do, so I will really be in the army my whole life.

I fell asleep and awoke at dawn like a good soldier. Then I took a lot longer than a ninety-second shower and helped myself to some of Gloria's coffee and cereal. The milk was bad, so I ate the cereal dry, washed down with the coffee, which was some store brand I never heard of. Gloria doesn't spend freely. She has a plan, which she explained to me on our first date. She was working two shifts a day, seven days a week, and going to school on top of that, so she could become a nurse-anesthetist, and really rake in the money, and she thought that in ten years of doing this she would have enough to finance medical school. She also explained, on the same first date, that she wasn't after a regular boyfriend, she just wanted someone nice who was out of town a lot and wouldn't try to control or otherwise fuck up her life, which, as I say, she had all planned out.

I was planned too, so that was cool. How I hooked up with her was I go for physical therapy three times a week at Walter and a while ago, on one of those days, Brenda Crabbe, my PT, had handed me a piece of paper with a phone number on it and said that Gloria Espinosa wanted to meet me. I asked her who she was and why me, and she said, "Half the doctors in this place been trying to get into that girl's pants for a year and she won't have anything to do with them. This is your lucky day, Sergeant." She had no idea why, she said; she said, "It can't be your face."

So I called the number and we arranged for a date and I got cleaned up and drove my rental to her house, which was in Riggs Park, a section of D.C. I had not been in before. Hamilton Street, where she lived, was rows of two-story brick buildings that someone built for people who needed a roof and could pay but who didn't have much of a choice. Her building had a sagging metal awning in front and a pile of plastic lawn furniture under it, designed so that the people who lived there would have a place to sit when the Washington summers made it impossible to stay inside. That was before AC and TV; the furniture looked like nobody had used it in a while.

She opened the door and she was beautiful: the cheekbones, those plush lips, and a curved nose with all kinds of character. She was smaller than me, which was nice, because I am not a large man, and she had a neat figure-eight kind of body, which appealed to my Middle Eastern tastes, that and the hair. And she gave me a beer, a National Bohemian, as a matter of fact, and I thought she was being funny, because Natty Bo is the beer soldiers in the Washington area drink by the case to get drunk, because it's really, really cheap.

So we had a beer each and talked, or she talked mainly, and she gave me the plan; she had to be careful about dating because she absolutely could not get involved, not seriously involved, with anyone. It was a little like being interviewed. She was looking intensely at me, to see if I was maybe concealing a guy who would give a shit, and I told her that was fine with me; I just wanted someone to go to a movie with and I didn't want to get involved either.

She said, "You're career-oriented too?"

I said, "In a manner of speaking. I'll probably get killed, and I don't think it's fair to saddle a family with that."

Her eyes got wide when I said this and she asked me what I did in the army and I was going to use the lame one — I could tell you but then I'd have to kill you — but she was not the kind of woman to be put off with that so I said what I was allowed to, which was some bullshit about long-range scouting.

"That's why you're working with Brenda. You got hurt in Iraq."

"No, Afghanistan," I said, our first lie. I'd known the woman for twenty minutes, so this was something of a personal best.

I'm in an organization called the Tactical Intelligence Support Detachment, which is its name just now. It's had a lot of names, but what it's been doing for the last twenty years or so is going into various places and gathering military intelligence, mostly what they call comint, which is eavesdropping on telecommunications but also just looking around and getting the feel of a place that the army might want to go into. Running agents too. The unit has three kinds of troops in general: knob turners who get the signals or whatever, spooks who gather the humint from live local types, and shooters, people who make sure the others don't get caught doing it. Sometimes — rarely — the shooters are ordered to commit some other form of necessary violence. I'm a shooter. The army is officially not supposed to do stuff like this. It's covert operation, which is supposed to be the domain of the CIA. But the CIA doesn't belong to the military, it does not salute and say hoo-ah when the army wants something from it, so the army decided it wanted its own little CIA, which is us.

Obviously, we've been busy since this whole terrorism thing started, although not as busy as we could've been. One thing a general hates is risk. The way they got all those stars is by not taking a risk and not ever getting a bad grade on their report cards, so when they get up there in the Pentagon the last thing they want is a bunch of cowboys in disguises slipping into some supposedly friendly country and listening to guys plotting bombings or, even worse, taking the guys out, as they say, extrajudicially. What if someone got caught: scandal, questions in Congress and the media? So half our missions get scratched, but the one I got hurt on didn't.

As it happens, I'm fluent in Dari and Pashto and Urdu, languages spoken in Afghanistan and the tribal areas of Pakistan, which was where this abortion actually went down. The target was a guy named Hamid al-Libiya, a comrade of Mr. bin Laden, who was tracked via comint from his dwelling place in Waziristan to Riyadh in Saudi, where he apparently picked up some funds from our wonderful allies there and went back to Waziristan. I guess al-Q has learned by now that they can't just send messages via sat phones because we're all over that, and they don't have broadband cable yet in Waziristan, so in order for the bad guys to keep their operations together they have to travel from time to time. They can't seem to stop using cell phones, though, so that's how we triangulated in on Mr. al-Libiya, who was in a place called Baggan, which was all Taliban all the time.

I was with two other guys, and we were posing as militants, armed to the teeth and so forth; we had beards and we smelled right and we blended right in; we had our own house and everything. After a day or so, we observed the arrival of several tinted-glass SUVs during the day, and from our house the knob turners are picking up intercepts of the subject's cell phone, and they learn he's meeting with a couple of senior Taliban commanders. So we got set to run in there that night and snatch the bunch of them.

We ran into a little problem, which is really part of a big problem. Okay, the army hates Special Ops, but it's like the bad girl on the block; they know she's bad but they can't keep their hands off her. So instead of being a self-contained operation there's levels of sign-off on every mission, which tends to compromise our security and slow things down; also, when we actually get clearance to go in, everyone in the area wants to be involved in this real exciting stuff and get part of the credit, if any. For this thing, they gave us a reinforced platoon of Special Forces guys, under a Captain Lepinski, who were supposed to hover in the area and provide backup and extraction in case we got into trouble.

We actually didn't get into trouble. Everything was going okay; we snatched up our insurgents and a little firefight broke out, nothing we couldn't handle, but Captain Lepinski got his signals crossed and the fuckhead painted the house with his laser target designator, and an F-16 loitering way up high dropped a 250 kg GBU- 12 bomb on it. The explosion caught me and Billy Olin going out the door and killed eighteen people inside including women and children. Rittenhouse died too.

It could've been worse for me, I guess. My left leg was broken in three places and my right shoulder was smashed up some and my right wrist was cracked. Fred Rice and Buck Claiborne and the LT came running back and dragged me and Billy and Steve's body out of there, not that I was personally aware of anything at the time.

We got air-evacuated to a hospital, first in Afghanistan and then in Germany. They covered the whole thing up per usual, because as a unit we don't exist, and the story that surfaced was internecine fighting between insurgent factions, and the Pakistanis lied too because they never admit that the U.S. has boots on the ground in Pakistan even though we do all the time. No one said a word about the blue-on-blue shit.


Excerpted from The Good Son by Michael Gruber. Copyright © 2010 Michael Gruber. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Reading Group Guide

1. What role does America play in this novel? As a character, how does it influence the course of the story?

2. This novel introduces many different archetypal women-Gloria, Rashida, Cynthia, Sonia, and all the unnamed "black figures" that appear throughout. What are their main differences? Similarities? What do all of these women bring out in Theo?

3. In the beginning of the novel, we are presented with the image of a hawk swooping down and killing a pigeon. How is this image carried throughout the rest of the story, and what are some of its possible interpretations?

4. Throughout The Good Son we are shown many scenes of torture-the mujahideen torturing Sonia and the prisoners, the U.S. agents torturing Cynthia, and the many scenes of torture in Hell that we see through the dreams Sonia interprets. How do each of these kinds of persuasion tactics differ and what do they tell us about the people behind them?

5. How does this novel touch upon relevant current events? How does it relate to your experiences in the aftermath of 9/11?

6. What can we learn about the world-and ourselves-from Theo's story? From Sonia's?

7. Is there a moral to be taken from The Good Son?

8. The role of family is very important throughout Theo's life. Discuss his relationship with his father, mother, and women in general.

9. What do you think is the next chapter for Cynthia and Theo-do you think they will, in fact, work together? Would you have ended the book the same way the author did?

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