Thursday, June 14, 2012

Fathers and Sons

I’ve never been a huge fan of Father’s Day, a sentiment I believe I inherited (not inappropriately) from my own father. Maybe it feels like a wan add-on to our extensive American list of sort-of-holidays because its history is so brief: Father’s Day only received its “official” status in 1972 when President Nixon granted it federal recognition more than sixty years after it was first proposed to the world by (of all people in all places) the leadership of the YMCA in Spokane, Washington. So I myself am older than Father’s Day! (Mother’s Day is a whole different thing, by the way, and a lot older: it was proclaimed as a holiday by President Wilson in 1914 after first having been conceived of as a “Mothers’ Day for Peace” by Julia Ward Howe, the activist author of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” in 1872 and then unofficially promoted by, of all ancient institutions, Wannamaker’s Department Store in Philadelphia.) But when I think more carefully about the whole thing, I realize that my disinclination to embrace Father’s Day too vigorously or enthusiastically (or, to continue the thought, to impose any specific obligations on my children to embrace it with vigor or enthusiasm) has to do not with the history of the day or with its relationship to Mother’s Day (or to Richard Nixon), but with the complexity of the father/child relationship and the inherent peculiarity of using pre-written greeting cards to suggest sentiments that are hard even to formulate at all, let alone to sum up in a few italicized lines of third-rate doggerel. Also, I have more than enough neckties as it is.

Or maybe I’m being unduly harsh here. I had a father. I am a father. Why shouldn’t I get a card once a year from my various offspring acknowledging my shared, yet indispensable, responsibility for their existence? So what if it’s a bit perfunctory? Better perfunct than defunct! And yet…I still find the whole father/child thing mysterious and complicated, something that resists summing up with a phone call and, although this part has blissfully fallen away, a bottle of Old Spice.

Just lately, although not specifically in preparation to write to you this week, I’ve been reading a surprising number of books about fathers and sons. The mother (so to speak) of such books, Ivan Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons, I read in college and recall as being essentially about the way fathers and sons are both incapable of stepping far enough away from their biological relationship to accept each other “just” as men. (The book, if I recall correctly, opens with a young man returning home to discover that his father has undertaken a tawdry affair with one of his housekeepers, a young woman with whom he has already produced a child, a “new” baby brother for his already-grown-up son, Arkady.) I don’t recall liking the book that much, although I liked other books by Turgenev, especially Asya and The Nest of the Gentry, and even went so far during one of my trips to the former Soviet Union to make a kind of literary pilgrimage to Spasskoye Lutavinovo, Turgenev’s great estate in southern Russia. (I also made a similar trip to Tolstoy’s estate at Yasnaya Polyana, very faithfully reproduced in the 2009 movie The Last Station starring Helen Mirren and Christopher Plummer, which I found far more stirring and interesting than Spasskoye. But, then again, I find Tolstoy’s books themselves far more stirring and interesting than Turgenev’s!)

Far more to the point, however, are the three books I’ve just completed reading. About Bernd Wollschläger’s book, A German Life, I wrote last week. Detailing his own complicated journey to Judaism against the background of his even more complicated relationship to his father, a decorated Wehrmacht officer, the book is really as much about fathers and sons as it is about Germans and Jews. As I wrote then, I liked the book very much and recommend it to people interested in both topics. (What’s the word for the convergence of several totally distinct events in a context related in some specific yet peripheral way to each of them? For what it’s worth, Bernd Wollschläger’s father received his Iron Cross—which medal Hitler himself pinned on his chest—for his personal bravery on the Eastern Front in the 1943 Battle for Oryol, which Russian city was both the city of Turgenev’s birth in 1818 and the city in which I personally spent a long month in 1990 enrolled in the Intourist Russian Language Institute there.)

But I wish to write today more about the other two books I’ve just recently completed: Noah Hawley’s The Good Father and William Landay’s Defending Jacob. I found both books engaging to the point of being engrossing. They’re similar in some ways, but distinct in others. But they will both appeal both to readers who have or had parents, or who are parents…but men will read this book differently, I think, than will women.

Hawley’s book is essentially about a man who loves his son intensely without knowing much about him. Is that the story of all fathers, the authors appears to be asking subtly: are all men who father sons doomed to loving them without really understanding them once they grow past childhood or even being able to fathom who they are or what they have become? Are we all that blind when it comes to those we love? Or is there something specific in the relationship of fathers and sons that makes it impossible for either to see the other party clearly? (Is it the same for mother and daughters? Hawley doesn’t go there and neither will I. But the question of whether the issue here is the same-genderedness of fathers and son or whether it is their specific maleness that is in play is key.) The book, at any rate, begins with a scene that we all know from our worst nightmares: we are having the most normal of days when suddenly a policeman comes to the door with the information that a child of ours has been arrested and charged with a horrific crime. I won’t say more because the book is too good for me to risk ruining it for you by giving too much away. But I will say that the book operates on two levels: the narrative one following the storyline along to its shocking conclusion (and inviting you time and time again to think you see what’s coming next only to be completely wrong), and the psychological level on which the book is not about the tale being told but about the author’s understanding of what it means to be a father, what it means to be a son. The father in question has an ex-wife, the mother of the son in question, and a second wife, the mother of that older son’s two much younger twin brothers. And within the warp and woof of that slightly complicated, but ultimately ordinary, family structure lies the lion’s share of what the book has ultimately to offer its readers, particularly regarding the nature of the relationship between fathers and sons. I was very taken by the book. Despite one single plot twist that I found irritatingly improbable, the book was satisfying and sobering: the former because it’s a very good story about the intertwined impossibilities of holding on and letting go, and the latter because it left me uncomfortably focused on the part of the emotional iceberg of family life that no one ever sees and most prefer simply to ignore. The short version is that I liked the book and I think my readers will too.

The second book, William Landay’s Defending Jacob, is also about a father and his son. To be fair, the son has a mother who plays a key role in much of the book. So this is not a book almost solely about fathers and sons in the same way Noah Hawley’s book is. But at the heart of Landay’s book too is the perplexing image of a father who loves his son, yet who turns out to know almost nothing about him. The books have their nightmarish premise in common as well: life is normal until it’s not, until the cop comes to the door with the news that the boy you thought you knew has been accused of doing something unimaginably bad. You leap to the boy’s defense, obviously. Both dads do, in fact, in both books. And the back story behind the narrative line in both books is about the degree to which fathers know their sons well and also don’t know them at all. The twist in Defending Jacob is that the father himself works as a public prosecutor, therefore as a legal professional who is supposed to be good at seeing things as they are, who is paid by the state (or rather the commonwealth, the story being set in Massachusetts) to know guilty parties when he sees them and adequately to demonstrate their guilt to juries beyond a reasonable doubt. And so, slowly, as the policemen and the lawyers do their jobs, the truth does emerge, or some version of it does. (This is true in both books.) I won’t give the plot away here either so as not to ruin the story for you, but the experience of watching these two fathers, the doctor in The Good Father and the lawyer in Defending Jacob, slowly realize how impossible it is to know another person truly well and eventually come to understand that that thought applies, if anything, even more meaningfully when the other person in the equation is someone you love wholly and absolutely in the manner of parents loving their children—that experience is what makes both these books worth your time to read and to savor. The final plot twist is unexpected to the point, I thought, of being unbelievable. But the book itself is great and I recommend it without reservation.

I have no specific plans for Father’s Day. I suppose I’ll hear from my kids. I might even get a meal out of it, or a necktie. Or just the meal. Maybe some cards. I’ll let you know. What I’d really like, though, is a few quiet hours to read…and then a nice meal with my descendants. Maybe I’ll give Turgenev another chance!

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