Like all good memoirs, John Darnton’s “Almost a Family ” (Anchor, $16.95) is something of a detective story. A former reporter and editor at the New York Times, Darnton barely knew his father, Byron “Barney” Darnton, who was killed while on assignment for the Times in the South Pacific in 1942. John Darnton was then 11 months old. “What a difference that one little sliver of shrapnel meant to our lives,” Darnton writes. Among other things, it robbed the younger Darnton of any memories of his father, leaving him instead with “the presence of an absence” that slowly morphed into a “mythic entity,” he writes. Darnton’s book is an effort to replace myth with truth — a meticulous investigation that is more thorough than it is moving.
Darnton begins by reconstructing the last few weeks of his father’s life, as he waves farewell to his young family in Westport, Conn., leaving behind a carefully constructed suburban idyll complete with perfectly shaken afternoon martinis. We last see his father alive scribbling in his notebook, wondering whether the bomb that’s about to kill him is Japanese or American (the latter, as it turns out).
The heart of the book chronicles his family’s slow tumble into dysfunction in the years that follow. His mother — “graciously offered” a job by the Times — tried to make ends meet while raising two children, without the help of Gloria Steinem or a steady passel of nannies. A spirited journalist known as Tootie, she turns out to be a more compelling character than his elusive father. After a falling out with the Times, she started her own business and wrote the wonderfully titled memoir, “The Children Grew,” intended to help other war widows, even as she herself quietly slipped into alcoholism. John and his brother are shuttled around — including a few brief and unpleasant stints in Washington, where John attends Alice Deal Junior High School, while she tries to gain sobriety. This isn’t “Angela’s Ashes” or “The Liars’ Club,” but the book paints a stark and compelling portrait of a childhood soaked in booze.
Barney Darnton flickers through these pages, playing well that role of the absent-presence until John and his brother, the historian Robert Darnton, track down documents, old friends and colleagues. A more nuanced portrait emerges, with a few shocking revelations along the way. The mystery of his father’s persona is never quite resolved, but the book ends with a hard-won sense of closure: “Decades of illusion drop away,” Darnton writes of his father, “and I felt as if I were mourning him for the first time.”
From previous reviews:
Ann Patchett’s “dazzling” novel “State of Wonder” (Harper Perennial, $15.99), about a Midwestern scientist sent to Brazil to find a missing colleague, grapples with both the unsavory behavior of Western pharmaceutical firms and “the strange choices individuals make in the remote wilderness of their own conscience,” Ron Charles wrote.
In “ The Night Strangers ” (Broadway, $15) by Chris Bohjalian, a guilt-ridden pilot faces ghosts of a different sort when he moves his family to a Victorian home in New England. The book, a psychologically astute thriller, “boasts all the trappings of a classic Gothic horror story,” according to Keith Donohue.
Ron Reagan’s “My Father at 100” (Plume, $16) offers a “first-person view of some of the most dramatic moments in the life of our 40th president,” Doug Wead wrote. “It may be the most intimate and revealing work yet about Ronald Reagan.”
“The Triple Agent” (Vintage, $15.95) by Joby Warrick, a Pulitzer Prize-winning Post reporter, tells a “potent and swift” story of a Jordanian doctor who penetrated the inner circle of al-Qaeda and the CIA, Steve Hendricks wrote.
“Founding Gardeners” (Vintage, $18.95), Andrea Wulf’s “lively and deeply researched history,” shows the importance of gardening to the first four presidents, Lauren F. Winner wrote. “Not only did the presidents’ love of gardening shape their politics, the founders’ politics shaped their gardens.”
In “ Lost in Shangri-La ” (Harper Perennial, $15.99), Mitchell Zuckoff “has uncovered and vividly reconstructed the astonishing tale” of three survivors of a 1945 plane crash in a South Pacific jungle, according to David Grann, who likened the book to a fast-paced novel.
Krug writes the New in Paperback column every month for The Washington Post.