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 few weeks later:
I don’t know what wakes me, but it’s almost five o’clock. I decide to check how he’s doing. I tiptoe down the hall and try pushing his bedroom door open quietly. It won’t open! I push till it’s open enough for me to stick my head in. He’s on the floor against the door at my feet, curled up naked, covered with shit! His face, hands, feet and legs, everything smeared in it! The smell almost knocks me down.
In between, Mom has returned home, overdone it celebrating his birthday, suffered a second coronary; Dad also has been told by a surgeon that he may have cancer and Dad, who is terrified of cancer, collapses.
If Wharton were trying to be efficient, he could have avoided Mom’s second heart attack, and the long harrowing sequence later on in which the blundering doctors let Dad fall into a coma after an operation, from which he suddenly and inexplicably recovers. But Wharton seems to intend to be no more efficient than life is, because he knows better than to try to control as a novelist more than he can record as a son. So he records it, and the result is an experiment in discovering, one that refuses to impose a form. Not an academic effort which tries to show what style, form, or point of view can do, but something richer: to find out what happened, who these people are.
Patterns do begin to emerge, some early on that are tough to spot then since the narrative twists and turns so suddenly, now hopeful, now depressing. Mom has, among other childhood troubles, seen two sisters die of tuberculosis in the bed the three slept in as children. She has had two nervous breakdowns by the time she meets her husband when she is seventeen. So she has grown to feel that only the narrow way, the controlled way, the hysterically clean way, can fend off disaster. Brewer’s yeast and boiled vegetable juices for the kids. A short leash for the husband. Schedules and prejudices for everything. Her daughter protects herself by becoming an ironist and flees by marrying “a wop.” Her son protects himself by becoming a painter, and flees, to “live with foreigners.” In a sense, the novel is about what happens to Dad as a result.
After his sudden recovery out of the coma, Dad becomes free, giddy. He goes off to the laundromat by himself, and to the Salvation Army with Johnny to buy bizarre clothes cheap: a costume for baseball watching, for “jogging” on his deck, for dancing. Mom is momentarily pleased that he is alive and happy, and even goes with him to buy a large golden couch; for a day or two lives that have always hidden laughter are suffused with gaiety. Free for Dad, though, becomes truly free: he and his grandson devise an earthquake detector based on Dad’s theory about the Coriolis effect; he discovers that for years he has, under stress, retreated to an alternative world, one that has all the people of his life, but there are more children, and he is a truck farmer, and everyone is always busy and happy. When Mom finds out about this she becomes fully frightened and impossible.
She insults Dad, tells him he’s crazy and that she can’t live with him; so it’s arranged that he’ll go to stay with his daughter, but she can’t stand that either:
“Get him the hell out of here. I don’t want to see his face again. He doesn’t love me, he’s always loved you kids more than he loved me. Get him out of here! I don’t ever want to see him again! Here we’re married more than fifty years, and now, when I’m sick, he wants to leave me.”
Dad stands up in front of his rocker. He stands there, still slightly crouched over, leaning the backs of his legs against the chair, his arms spread.
“But, Bess, I mean Bette, that’s not true. I don’t want to go anywhere. I’ll stay. I want to stay right here with you.”
“Get out! I’m sick of looking at you. You’re driving me crazy; what good are you to me or anybody?”
Dad goes, but is terrified, and a few days later he is curled up in the corner of the closet shredding his granddaughter’s dresses with his teeth.
Wharton insists on the plain style; he allows himself only exclamation marks and an occasional loftiness, but no higher than that Mom is “a diesel engine inside a canoe.” He allows himself to invent some passages of Dad’s alternative world, and to do some scenes between Johnny and his son told from the son’s point of view; these are strained, overdone. The rest is written, and the result is the sense that nothing is as wonderful, as awful, as wearying, as mysterious, as growing old. It may even be that Wharton is such a fine novelist because he is a very good son. Stranger things have happened.
Still, as one rereads the book, something seems askew. The book should have been called Mom and Dad, but it couldn’t have been because Wharton in this book has been unable to forgive Mom. Dedicate a book to naked search, yes, but then the writer is not free to choose the materials. What emerges here is a blockage of feeling. Mom is no villain, and Wharton and Johnny always can “understand” Mom, but her pain and travail are too often and too finally allowed to be the cause of everyone else’s. Dad is described in soft light, Mom in harsh florescent, and if Wharton can “see” this, he cannot control it, account for it, and so, in a book where the other women are wonderfully described, one wants only to record the fact of the bias, and to say that here such a failure matters. But not enough to keep Dad from being a fine novel I hope will be read.
August 13, 1981