July 18, 2005



If you're willing to allow father/daughter, The Historian has a couple of notable relationships.

Best wishes to your father and your family. I hope everything goes smoothly.

Jim Ruland

The Great Santini. The sex scenes are awesome.

(Hoping that brought you some amusement during this time of crisis.)


Gilead is a wonderful portrait of fathers and sons, yes.

Such are my own peculiar family dynamics that right now all that's popping to mind to add is this line from B.S. Johnson's Albert Angelo that Mr. Golden Rule Jones quoted the other day: In this house, in my parents' house, my parents' home, all affection is channelled through the dog. No one is affectionate to anyone else except through the dog. I make a fuss of the dog. Fortunately he is a sensible and loveable dog.

It's funny as I was thinking the other day about how many orphans appear in fiction - it's almost as if the only way to make the narrator autonomous enough to go about his or her own story is to remove the parents from the scene.

Likewise, there seem a disproportionate number of parent substitutes: Like Bertie Wooster's aunts, for examples.

You know I am thinking of you, my dear, and sending all good wishes to your dad.


Jim, you always make me laugh, sometimes even intentionally. Erin and CAAF, thanks for the wishes. (I love the dog quote! A real keeper.)


Although I did not email, my thoughts were certainly with you, which is where they will remain.

Your post is beautiful. Thank you for it.


Just a thought, Philip Roth's Patrimony, a wonderful book he wrote about his father. But also something you might want to handle with care. I'll keep a good thought for you and your family.


Reader Grant Barber wrote in to me with the following interesting choices:

"Richard Ford's novel "Independence Day," while solely concerned with a father and son, certainly deals with those dynamics. Haven't read "The Sports Writer" but suspect it does too.

"Please Don't Come Back From the Moon," a newish novel by Dean Bokopolous.

"Big Fish," Daniel Wallace

Reynolds Price, "The Promise of Rest" and "The Good Priest's Son." The first has the son dying--AIDS. Excellent book.

I'm sure there are more."

Patrick Giles

Well, TEV, I am sorry about your father, and will keep him in my prayers.

This is emphatically NOT the time for your to read Philip Roth's PATRIMONY. Don't ask me why, just leave it alone. But maybe his THE PLOT AGAINST AMERICA would work for you now, because the little boy's take on what's happening to the world and how his father/protector Herman Roth is dealing with it effectively conveys how we, at root, feel about our fathers--that original sense of being at the feet of a person invincible yet curiously threatening and vulnerable.

For me the ultimate father in literature (putting aside God, in Dante and Milton) is Dorrit in Dickens' LITTLE DORRIT. Fathers were always problematic for Dickens, because his own, John Dickens, was an adorable guy who wrecked the family's future and left Charles with a lifelong shame over his own descent into the hell of Victorian child labor and the determined, even frantic, efforts he made to become the prosperous writer he was. (Dickens never told his own family about his childhood term in Warren's Blacking Factory; they found out, along with everyone else, when an autobiographical fragment he wrote before writing DAVID COPPERFIELD surfaced after his death.)

So there are a number of troubling fathers in Dickens, often quite charming on one level, infuriating on others. Mr. Micawber, in COPPERFIELD, is probably the most famous, especially because he comes to a heroic place at the end of that book. Pickwick is a kind of father, well-meaning, but fundamentally clueless. "This morning I had twenty-five shillings in my hands," John Dickens used to say with a smile, holding empty but expensively-gloved hands out to his hungry family and baffled friends, "and now--observe the vacancy." Whereas mothers are persistently untrustworthy, unidentifiable, and even lethal in Dickens' world (his own mother, even after the family's shattered economics were repaired, insisted, loudly, that the six shillings a week 12-year-old Charles made in the blacking [shoe-polish] factory was an amount she simply could not do without; Dickens never forgot this), fathers are lovable but ultimately let you down.

Then there is William Dorrit. He lets his family down more than almost any other parent in Dickensland. He gets thrown into the Marshalsea debtors' prison (where the Dickenses were kept) with his wife and a baby. Over the next 20+ years, he has two more children, the wife dies, and he does nothing to get himself out of jail. He becomes known as "The Father of the Marshalsea," a potentate with nothing but his own pride. New debtors call on him as if getting a royal audience; pitying visitors plop just enough change in his hands to keep him fed; his children live half-in-, half-outside the Marshalsea, working here and there.

And yet Dorrit is a tragic figure of magnificent presence. Stupid and selfish, moments of self-realization strike him, and he suddenly becomes so like us the reflection is unbearable. How do we all form the accidents and losses of our lives into a worthy biofraphy? How do we overlook the accidents of parentage and relationship we call "family" and the countless ways we betray or ignore or let each other down? In an unforgettable moment in the first part of the novel, Dorrit's illusions vanish and he writhes in the agony of a failed man, a man for whom life has passed in the shadows of poverty and for whom it is truly too late. And yet this is the moment we come to love him, first, because of the supreme eloquence of Dickens' diction (describing the scene and putting speeches in Dorrit's mouth), second, because of the desperate tenderness Little Dorrit, his daughter, shows, on her knees tugging at his sleeve as if she were not 22 but 5, insisting all this talk of failure is nonsense, how loved and valued her father is!, and lastly, because we know this is a moment of truth that has happened before, will happen again, and will lead to no lasting change. (It does happen again, horribly, in a way I can't explain without giving the plot away.)

But LITTLE DORRIT is an extremely comforting book for parents and children to read. Some say this is because it makes them realize how much better off they are with the folks they've got. This was not my story. I read it as an adult for the first time right after my parents died. The resemblance between my dad, a chronic invalid who ran out the clock of his life with little ambition and much despair, and William Dorrit, whom even a merantile miracle cannot rescue from doom, was so powerful I threw my first copy of the book away mid-reading. Eventually, I got another one, and read the rest, and found a great deal of solace in the story, in how William Dorrit does make something worthwhile of his life, and how Little Dorrit, though marked by her father's life, nonetheless fashions a better one of her own, without spite, without resentment, and without despair.

The best thing to do, TEV, is pray and stay close to your dad and your feelings about him. Write (for yourself, not us) and bring to mind as many good things that passed between you and him as you can remember. And remind him of them.

Take care,



"Sometimes a Great Notion" or "Horseman, Pass By" come to mind for father/son conflict.

Best wishes to you and your father.

Anne Larsen

AN AMERICAN MEMORY, by Eric Larsen. (Yes, I'm biased, but he's a wonderful writer.)

John Shannon

Strange conjunction of John Berger and the business of a family channeling a kind of thwarted affection through a dog. Berger says a very similar thing in his magnificent "A Fortunate Man," I paraphrase--it's lucky British men have hobbies or they would never communicate to one another at all. You could say sports on this side of the pond. As for fathers, that (possible) loss is just too painful to contemplate. Indirectly, my favorite portrait in literature is the grandfather-daughter relation in Jim Harrison's Dalva, a near perfect instance fo the unreliable narrator.

Ian C.

My father struggled with atrial fibrillation for years, and the procedures performed to correct the problem were successful, so I certainly hope your father has the same good fortune. I imagine he's undergoing the same procedure. Best wishes to him.

A father-son story that I've always enjoyed is "The Year of Getting to Know Us" by Ethan Canin.


I feel as if I have to write my own because there are no literary precedents that are exactly like mine, and even my own story with my parents is constantly being transformed. Thus, I find it entering my fiction over and over in various sly disguises.

I hope things go well for your father.


Any time is a good time for Gilead in my book. Particularly regarding father/son relationships, there are a number in the novel: Ames and his young son, Ames and the black sheep godson, the son who went away, the son who never left, and of course wildly different politics from one generation to the next. I can't say enough for this book.


Agreed on the advice to skip Roth's "Patrimony" for the moment. It's worth reading, but maybe not now.

I'd like to add my voice to the "Gilead" chorus.

Jimmy Beck

Frank O'Connor's Collected Stories--lots of dads in there, some more admirable than others. Wishing a speedy recovery to yours.


Ah - sorry indeed to hear about your father. Hope he makes it through this tough time ok.

I realize my reading recommendations (and my jokes, and my blog posts, and my ...) are nothing if not repetitive, but Thomas-Hanno in Mann's Buddenbrooks must be considered among the two or three greatest depictions of father-son relationships in all of noveldom. I'll post a sample later today ...


Sam, good call on Buddenbrooks. I concur.


The Invention of Solitude - Paul Auster

Read this beautiful quote, by Virginia Woolf, about what was quite a difficult relationship:
"The division in our life was curious. Downstairs there was pure convention: upstairs pure intellect... No one cared less for convention [than father]. No one respected intellect more. Thus I would go from the drawing room... to father’s study to fetch a [new book]. There I would find him, swinging in his rocking chair, pipe in mouth. Slowly he would realise my presence. Rising, he would go to the shelves, put the book back and ask me very kindly what I had made of it? Perhaps I was reading Johnson. For some time we would talk and then, feeling soothed, stimulated, full of love for this unworldly, very distinguished, lonely man, I would go down to the drawing room again." (Moments of Being)

All best to you.


The Woolf is beautiful, Andie. Thank you. And the Auster has been in my TBR pile for some time ... will check it out.

David Worsley

They should probably be read together but Jonathan Coe's Rotters Club and the Closed Circle are a great pair of novels around (among other things) familial bond.
Mark, that was a moving essay and I wish you well.

Rodger Jacobs

After all of those delightful recommendations I can only think of John Steinbeck's dark and clever Cain and Abel epic "East Of Eden." Not the most subtle novel in terms of characterizations and plot but it packs an emotional wallop nonetheless.

My thoughts are with you, Mark.

Mr. Sclafani

Gilbert Sorrentino's short story "Things That Have Stopped Moving" has a moving, and clearly somewhat autobiographical, exploration of the narrator's relationship with his father.

Angela Stubbs

No book suggestions, however, my father has suffered from many a heart condition over the past 3-4 years. I, too am the only one in our family who lives away. It makes it tough when you are at a distance, but your being there speaks volumes. I'm sure it will mean a great deal to him. Your thoughts and feelings about your father were very moving. Many of us can identify with you in one way or another and I will keep you and your family in my thoughts. And after all of the heart issues, my own father is fine and as big a conservative as ever . . .

All good things Mark--

Laurence Dumortier

WONDER BOYS also has great stuff about fathers and sons, or rather father figures.
Best wishes during this difficult time.

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