by William Wharton
Knopf, 449 pp., $12.95
While reading William Wharton’s wonderful novel, Dad, I could not help imagining, as many will, the circumstances of its composition. It has the tone of intense personal quest that leads the reader to such speculations. I ended up with this: Wharton (a pseudonym) spent some months five years ago in Los Angeles, nursing his mother back from two successive heart attacks and then his father from a cancer operation and from what his doctors desperately called “instant senility.” He left with his son and started back home to France in a car he was hired to drive to Philadelphia. As he left off the car, he learned his father had died. Though he can say he accepts it, he knows he must write about all of it in order to try to understand it—although a good deal is unlikely in its sudden spurts of terror, laughter, recovery, and relapse. But if he can do so he may discover who his parents were and who he has become.
Whether something like that happened or not, Wharton seems to take pleasure in getting moments of family talk down on paper:
“I hated moving five miles from my family but we were afraid of those niggers. Saint Barnabas Church had the only school with no niggers in it and we were proud of that; even the priests used to talk about it in those days.”
He stops. I wonder what he wants me to say.
“Now Johnny, they tell us in church we have to forget all that. Our priest says it’s a mortal sin having those kinds of feelings…. John, you can’t change people so fast. I tell the priest in confession and he tells me to pray for love and charity.”
“I pray, Johnny, but nothing comes. I’d sure as the devil hate going to hell just because I can’t work up love for a nigger. It’s not fair. You do what you’re supposed to do when you’re young, then they change the rules.”
Dad is lucid and charming, trying to learn how to get the hang of things with his wife in the hospital, how to get on with his artist son who lives in France, a fact so strange Dad assumes Johnny works for the CIA. He is also charmed when he flirts with a black nurse who has an even more luxurious greenhouse than his own. He is amazed to find himself riding behind his son on a motorcycle, on the way to the splendid seediness of Venice (California). Relaxing, he announces: “You know, Johnny, I’ve missed my calling. I think I could be a hippy.” Indeed, he starts a beard, and when he visits his wife, who can’t stand beards, he puts on a surgical mask and says he has a cold.
For a while we have a charming, middle-aged son and elderly father getting close to each other. But then there’s this, only a …