Monday, June 16, 2014

Four short stories about fathers

Title: Able, Baker, Charlie, Dog
Author: Stephanie Vaughn
Where I read it: American Voices

The world's too small for some personalities. (Or maybe modern Western society is too small.) The main character in "Able, Baker, Charlie, Dog" has a father who's in the military. In ways both bright and dark, he's a compelling figure: Full of fascinating stories, quirky mannerisms, lessons he wants to impart, a personality that can't be contained in a military role or, later in his life, in the role of a hardware store owner. He also drinks sometimes and doesn't control his temper. Even as she loves him, how close can his daughter be to him? He is a monumental figure in her life, but there's also a distance, as if he's always receding from her even as he looms close by.

In one scene, he crosses a wide frozen river one night after he's been drinking, as his daughter watches from the shore; all at the same time, the scene is tense and humorous and poignant. He survives, but does something in him die, given that he settles in quietly to his chain of hardware stores, and his smoking and drinking and slow death? Would it have been more epic of him to disappear into or across the icy river?

Title: Bridging
Author: Max Apple
Where I read it: The Granta Book of the American Short Story

After his wife passes away from a protracted illness, the main character sees that his young daughter has withdrawn from the world. To try to get her to connect with other people and take joy in life again, he begins to help out with a Girl Scouts troop. His daughter, however, doesn't want to attend any of the meetings; she wants only to spend time with him. He needs to overcome his own worries and work through his grief, as he tries to show her that you can live more fully even when you're carrying fear in you - that you can trust people to come back to you, even if there are no 100% guarantees of the sort. It's a quietly moving story.

Title: Hanwell Snr
Author: Zadie Smith
Where I read it: The Book of Other People

Cruelty can be righteously opposed, eventually dismissed. A freewheeling carelessness with your cares is something else again. It must teach you a sad self-sufficiency, being fathered like that, and a brutal reticence of the heart. A reluctance to get going at all.
Hanwell Snr and his son, Hanwell, are related by blood, but to call Hanwell Sr a father would be a stretch. He fades out of his son's life for long periods of time and pops in from time to time with charm and good spirits, and no apparent understanding of what he's doing to his family. He changes names and identities a few times, and the last time they see each other, his son has tracked him down to where he's working as a fish and chips vendor in a small village.

In their final conversation, they share a smoke, with the son trying to clarify some things from the past and even make himself look smart in his father's eyes, with his father gruffly shutting him down at every opportunity and keeping things as impersonal as possible, talking to his son as he would to an acquaintance.

The story at the end gives us a brief glimpse of the strained relationship Hanwell Jr. will have with his own son; at the end of the day, the legacy from his father may be one of estrangement between father and son and families broken up. And generally when people can't make sense of a situation, or understand how they should best handle it, they're more likely to recreate it in their own lives.

At the end, you find out who's narrating the story, and this revelation gives it another layer of depth. I like how the story skips across decades, like a stone across water.

Title: In a Father's Place
Author: Christopher Tilghman
Where I read it: American Voices

A man and his house, emptying of everything but memory; I read this story a while ago, and that's what I remember it as. The main character has two grown children, a daughter and son. He and his daughter have a fairly steady, uncomplicated relationship, but she'll be moving away. As for the son, on a visit home he's brought with him a girlfriend who seems to represent (and exacerbate) the growing distance in the father-son relationship. From what I remember, the father also had a relationship with a woman the kids didn't get along with after their mother passed away; is the son getting a bit of revenge (not consciously) against the father? (Or is that only how the father sees it?) I don't think the father and son have a head-on confrontation in the story, but the main tension between them gets expressed through the girlfriend, which further shows the distance between them; they aren't really direct with each other.

The author brings the house and the surrounding land to life; the father in the story is bound to both, has shaped them and has made them his. He may spend his remaining years alone there, more or less. And maybe by the end of the story he'll have come to terms with that and with his life as a whole, the mistakes but also the moments of profound love and joy. He can't change anything that's happened; only revisit it in his mind and approach it with a sense of wonder that it's all happened to him, this life.

[Edits: 4/2015]