By Ron Charles
Wednesday, August 4, 2010; C01
FATHER OF THE RAIN
By Lily King
Atlantic Monthly 354 pp. $24
Meetings conducted by Al-Anon, the support group for family members of alcoholics, begin with some variant of this greeting, woven from solidarity and sorrow: "We who live, or have lived, with the problem of alcoholism understand as perhaps few others can." What grim knowledge these spouses and children harbor, forced into the contradictory roles of nurse, defender and victim. The proliferation of survivor memoirs and their popular auxiliaries -- the Redbook feature, the Oprah episode, the "Afterschool Special" -- tempt us to imagine that we have some idea of what living with an addict must be like, but for an understanding beyond the confessional or therapeutic, the very best novelists offer insight no one else can into that Sisyphean challenge. Marilynne Robinson's "Home" and Roxana Robinson's "Cost" are the most exquisite recent examples, and now Lily King's "Father of the Rain" is a worthy companion on this theme. Surprising and wise, it's the third novel -- after "The Pleasing Hour" and "The English Teacher" -- by a writer who understands the horrible burden of trying to save someone who's ruining your life.
"Father of the Rain" describes the conflicted relationship between an alcoholic and his only daughter, Daley, who narrates the story in three parts, from the mid-1970s to the present day. It opens in a small Massachusetts town when she turns 11 on the week her mother plans to walk out. From the first page, we're caught in the tangled lines of affection and menace that will hold Daley in thrall to her father for the rest of her life.
King has created such an arresting character, an obnoxious, needy man whose magnetism can turn in an instant from attractive to repulsive. Charming, good-looking and athletic, Gardiner is a Harvard grad from a wealthy family, a man capable of dazzling acts of generosity and hilarious stunts. But he's also frighteningly erratic and easily enraged, a bully who hates everything that's happened since 1955 and does his best to remain in the class-bound world where men at the club wear slacks embroidered with little ducks and banter good-naturedly with the black waiters. In a voice even more damning for its refusal to judge him, King describes Gardiner streaking naked through a children's party, reading Penthouse Letters to the family and telling racist jokes in his Uncle Tom accent. Young Daley struggles to see him as silly and fun, while adults -- enablers every one -- stand around laughing nervously.
If he were a little more violent, if his sexual transgressions were just an iota more predatory, we could peg him as a monster and Daley could be free of him forever, but that's the treacherous skill of the functional alcoholic that King captures here so well: Gardiner swaggers between normal life and chaos, just good enough to maintain a semblance of sobriety, civility, humanity. Daley is torn between the fear of losing her father and remaining in his company, never knowing when she might be the victim of his sudden callousness but desperate "to receive the full glow of that face." Nothing compares with how good she feels when he hugs her tightly and says, "You're mine. You're mine. Aren't you?"
This would be so easy to get wrong, to let slip into a slow-moving thriller or a pathetic tale of abuse. But the raw sincerity of their love for each other makes his behavior and her devotion all the more tragic. "I miss him so much," Daley thinks, "it feels like my skin is coming off."
Another aspect of "Father of the Rain" that deepens the story and broadens it beyond the dimensions of one family's disintegration is how effectively King lets us see the national drama playing out in the news. While Gardiner is stomping around bullying his wife and children, President Nixon is snarling at his enemies and reassuring the nation, struggling to maintain the illusion of normality before his house collapses, too. This natural resonance between foreground and background makes for an affecting portrait of a little girl losing all the pillars of respect and stability in her life.
The novel's next part, 18 years later, is just as successful and even more absorbing, the narrator's voice having aged into a more analytical and self-conscious tone. An adult with a promising academic career, Daley no longer feels bound by Gardiner. "My father has no power over me," she tells a friend. "He wasn't even a father." But, of course, paternal influence is not so easily brushed off, and King explores their complicated relationship with startling psychological acuity. "He disgusts and compels me," Daley admits, trying to understand the paradox of loving a horrid man. As the adult child of an abusive alcoholic, a man who downs a quart of vodka and settles into a vicious argument every night, Daley has learned her role too well: "I do not bring up politics, history, literature, lawyers -- especially Jewish lawyers -- or any other subject that can be linked, however loosely, to my mother. I do not tease, and I receive teasing with a smile; I keep my thoughts and opinions to a bare minimum. I ask questions. I make myself useful. I do not discuss my interests, my relationships, or my goals."
She knows intellectually that "this is a sick man whose problems I cannot remedy," but the temptation to save him proves irresistible. As much as the first part of the novel is propelled by the tension of Daley's fear, this second section, wavering between breakthrough and collapse, is a brilliant exploration of the attraction of martyrdom, the intoxication of playing savior. "I'm fixing something with my father that got destroyed when I was eleven years old," she tells her fiance, who, like all her friends, is baffled by her devotion.
King poses the questions so powerfully that you can't answer them easily: What kind of abuse finally abrogates one's responsibility to a self-destructive parent? What is too much to ask of a child? Daley claims, "The way I cope is to never have expectations, so I'm not disappointed," but she's lying, ignoring the desperate hope that keeps her attached to this man, keeps her sacrificing her own life for his. It's an absorbing, insightful story written in cool, polished prose right to the last conflicted line.
Charles is the fiction editor of Book World. You can follow him on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/roncharles.