The Devil’s Own Dear Son

Hermetic Library fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Devil’s Own Dear Son by James Branch Cabell.

James Branch Cabell The Devils Own Dear Son

The Devil’s Own Dear Son was Cabell’s fiftieth book (by his own count), and, I think, his last novel. He wrote it as the third of his “It Happened in Florida” trilogy, and the book has a lot to say about “the tourist trade” in St. Augustine, based presumably on knowledge gathered by the then-septaugenarian Cabell as a “winter resident” of the “Nation’s Oldest City.”

Cabell remarks in an introduction that the early drafts of this novel were written in the first person narrative voice, in the words of Diego de Arredondo Dodd, the progeny referenced in the title. Possibly as a trace of that compositional feature, the published text has a recurrent idiomatic use of the grammatical second person, useful here to get the reader to identify with the perspective of the morally-dubious (though reputable and affable) Diego. This usage may also represent a lapse into the tone of Diego’s father, the keeper of the Bide-A-Way Tourist Home, whose shortcomings and wisdom form a central conundrum of the book. As he finally sums it up, “For everybody has dreams, Diego, just as everybody has measles. But we get over both of them by-and-by” (206).

Although this book finishes “It Happened in Florida,” it is not especially reliant on the preceding two volumes, merely alluding to their contents in a few places. It fact, it is equally (i.e. somewhat nominally) connected to the earlier Biography of Manuel, with a brief journey for Diego through Poictesme and Ecben (124) astride the silver stallion Kalki, whose name is not given, but who has aged into “an infirm and discredited animal” (118). This novel is very much the sort of ironical fantasy for which Cabell became known for writing in books like Jurgen and The High Place.

The subtitle “A Comedy of the Fatted Calf” alludes to the parable of the prodigal son, and it is an open question as to which of Diego’s fathers should be identified with the father in the parable. Should it indeed be the human stepfather Bartholomew Burton Dodd, who “held to the ways of his forefathers” and counseled Diego returned from long adventures beyond St. Augustine to embrace a comfortable mediocrity? Or should it be Diego’s infernal sire Red Samael, who welcomed him to a belatedly-realized supernatural birthright, and offered a fatted calf and then some, for nothing but the asking of it?

Obscure as it is, relative to the larger Cabell oeuvre, The Devil’s Own Dear Son is still hilarious, and this more mature venture into the sardonic world of Cabell’s magical stories shows that Kalki could still take readers for the ride they had come to look for in this author’s writing. [via]