I just finished reading Kit Reed's new novel "The Baby Merchant" a few days ago, and I’ve gotta say hats-off for another brilliant success!
The story revolves around a group of characters living in America of the not-too-distant future where birth rates have tanked (due to reasons speculated on only briefly), domestic adoptions have become more difficult than applying for a bank loan to build a paper mache donut shop in the middle of Tornado Alley, closed borders prevent trans-national adoption, and childless couples are becoming increasingly desperate to get children any way they can. Into this void steps Tom Starbird, a low-key black market operator who, for the right (and very high) price, snatches “unwanted” babies from their biological parents and puts them into the hands of his rich clients. Tom finds himself at the mercies of attack-dog journalist Jake Zorn who tosses ethics by the wayside in his crusade to get a baby for himself and his wife Maury. In the middle of the mess is Sasha Egan: pregnant with an unplanned child, escaped from the birth/adoption centre she’d chosen and on-the-run from the child’s father Gary, a one-night-stand hired by Sasha’s grasping grandmother to bring the baby back to the family compound.
I think what the book is really about, though, is imprisonment. How a person deals with it and most importantly, how they escape. And we’re not just talking about physical imprisonment here (although entrapment in institutions certainly is a factor for some characters at some points in the novel), but psychological and emotional imprisonment imposed upon one character by another or by society, and by one character upon him/her self.
Nearly every character in this book is imprisoned in some way at some point.
Sasha begins the tale imprisoned in the birthing/adoption agency. While she’s there by her own choice, once inside she’s confined and harassed like a prisoner by staff who seem to have taken their cue from “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest”. She’s there because she’s fleeing from the likelihood of virtual imprisonment if she’s found by her grandmother. Sasha views her pregnancy as a sort of shackling as well: her body isn’t capable of doing what she wants it to in terms of escaping from Gary and her girth doesn’t allow her to disappear into the crowd once she’s left the institution. The confines of her motel room in Savannah quickly start to feel like a prison to her. When the baby’s born, Sasha initially feels hostage to its needs and schedules. And in the end, when her baby, Jimmy, is stolen, she certainly feels entrapped by the police who interrogate her like a suspect after she’s called them in to help her find the child.
And yet, despite these many manacles that seemingly weigh upon Sasha, she manages to overcome all obstacles and create a freedom for herself and her baby on her own terms. Sasha enters the birthing/adoption centre as a means of eluding capture by her grandmother. She escapes the centre to get away from Gary, but it feels also to reclaim control of her life and her baby’s destiny that’s denied to her by the staff. The prison of the motel room is transformed into a home of sorts once she begins adding personal touches. Sasha endures pregnancy and the early crises of caregiving and transforms herself and is transformed by those circumstances into a mother who bonds with her son and comes to the realization that he’s a part of her life that she can’t part with and which she doesn’t want to lose. This expands within her exponentially once the baby’s taken and she goes on the warpath, turning the tables on the cops who suspected her and forcing them to give her everything she wants to get her son back. Sasha ends the novel having recovered her baby and redefining her life on her own terms, answerable to no-one other than her son.
For his part, Tom Starbird is imprisoned right from the start by the events of his own childhood – by his need to ensure that the few babies left in the country are safely with parents who want them and who will love them and provide them with the very best. Despite coming from an unaffectionate home, Tom is also trapped by the love every child feels for its mother. What’s Brandon Lee’s line from “The Crow”? Something like “Mother is the name for God on the hearts of children everywhere”? Why do many abused children desperately crave the affection of the very parents who hurt them? Tom is one of these, who, even as an adult who is determined to make sure no child is raised by a mother who doesn’t want him, still is willing to allow Jake Zorn’s blackmail and violate his personal code of conduct in order to protect the mother who ditched him front of a mall. Tom’s also a prisoner to his frigid philosophy of refusing to allow any emotion in his business dealings. While this protects him from forming attachments that could interfere with his kidnapping and baby selling, it also serves to completely alienate him from all other human beings.
But Starbird also (and I think this is obviously why his last name is such an allusion to the phoenix) is reborn into some kind of freedom. First by re-defining his life along minimalist lines so that he can focus on looking into himself. But most importantly by his growing unease with his trade and final project, and his eventual breakthrough where he watches Sasha’s tirade on TV and realizes that what he does is wrong. This motivates Tom not only to arrange to have the baby returned to Sasha, but to put Zorn in his place. And more importantly still, it forces Starbird to reach out to Sasha, to contact her, and in the process knowingly expose himself to the law, to try to apologize. He is transformed into a human being through this. So, despite the fact that he will be imprisoned and possibly executed for his crimes, Tom is able to attain a freedom of spirit.
Then there’s Maury, the intelligent, attractive, confident lawyer who has it all – except a child. She’s trapped by her desire to be a mother. So much so that she’s willing to force down her unease, suspicions and legal training as her husband strings her along with his secret plan to get her a child. Maury’s shackled by her repeated, unsuccessful pregnancies in the past. By her past suicide attempt after yet another stillbirth that hospitalized her and now makes it impossible for her to get a child through a proper adoption agency. By society’s expectation that a woman isn’t a woman unless she’s a mother.
But Maury rises above it all in the end by using her intelligence and legal skill to adopt a child – legally - in need against all odds and without the interference of Jake.
Jake Zorn, the so-called “Conscience of Boston”, is a prisoner of his own ego. He must get everything he wants when he wants it, and he must show his targets that he is the utter master of the situation. Jake is a man who ultimately wants to be a god, to tell the public what he thinks they need to know, to hold the fate of her prey/interview subjects in the palm of his hand, to provide his wife with everything she wants to make her happy, to rear a son to be an everlasting symbol of Jake’s own greatness. What irks him the most is that he can’t get a baby for his wife. The system defies him. And he is denied again when he initially tries to go through Starbird. Which is why he decides to blackmail Tom into doing the job, all the while preparing to take Starbird down anyway. Jake is then literally imprisoned when Tom comes clean in the media and provides evidence of Zorn’s involvement.
Does Jake manage to escape total imprisonment though? I think so. The conclusion of the novel seems to indicate he’s not completely despicable. Despite Maury’s complicity in the attempt to illegally obtain a baby, Jake falls on his sword and makes sure the wrath of the law comes down on him and him alone. Sure, Maury’s lawfirm helps keep her clean, but what’s most important is that Jake does his best to protect her. You might, in a cynical moment, say this is another example of Zorn hogging the spotlight, but I think he takes the fall solo because he does actually care for Maury. Because of that, he is not entirely out of grace.
There are a whole host of secondary and minor characters in “The Baby Merchant” who also grapple with imprisonment.
Tom’s mother has been institutionalized in psychiatric hospitals twice. She’s been medicated to control her mood swings. She’s been in Jake Zorn’s sights. And she’s been shackled with the twin burdens of professional mediocrity and the duties of motherhood – a motherhood that initially was intentional, but came with a legion of unwanted responsibilities and no creative reward.
Sasha’s grandmother is trapped in her need for an heir to the family empire. She’s also denied access to little Jimmy by Sasha at the end.
Jimmy Egan was imprisoned in a box and a pet carrier when he was kidnapped by Tom. You might also say that his time in the womb was imprisonment of a sort, which required his birth and subsequent bonding with his mother to truly escape.
Gary, the one-night-stand who fathered Jimmy, is subject to his own greed, and is eventually killed as a result of it.
Marilyn, the owner of the motel is a prisoner to an unsatisfying life that offers no escape beyond her brief attempts to fool herself through an abuse of makeup or clothing or go-nowhere affairs.
Marilyn’s tubby son Delroy is a prisoner to his own greed and lack of morality, as well as bottomless appetite and his mother’s heavy hand.
Even the police are held captive by Sasha’s rage once the truth comes out that the baby has actually been abducted.
What’s also interesting, is that imprisonment seems to be a theme of one of Reed’s other books “Thinner than Thou”, where characters grapple with the confines of institutional confinement, mental illness, physical problems and social intolerance.
I must say, it is intellectually freeing to read Kit Reed’s takes on what it means to be imprisoned and what is necessary to escape.