By Carolyn See
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, January 13, 2011; 11:14 PM
By Dave Itzkoff.
Villard. 221 pp.
I had a first husband who was embarrassing. Cute enough to marry, but embarrassing enough to divorce five years later. He went on being embarrassing, though - never once owning a pair of shoes, dressing in caftans and causing his children no little embarrassment, too. But when they complained, he met their objections with a benign, forgiving smile. "That's what parents are for," he said, and still says today.
This memoir by Dave Itzkoff, "Cocaine's Son," implies by its title that the author was tormented in his youth by having a dad who was a cocaine addict, but as the descriptions of this father pile up, he seems more and more to be simply a deeply embarrassing guy who happened to have done a lot of cocaine in his remote past. For years Itzkoff's grandfather and great-grandfather, Russian Jews, have been in the business of buying and selling furs - not fur coats, but the furs themselves: pelts flattened and stretched, still pungent. Their stock is filled with stacks and stacks of them, primitive, smelly and, by definition, unrefined. The business, even while keeping the family in plenty of money, was, on the face of it, faintly embarrassing.
The family in which Itzkoff grows up is traditional, far from any cliche of an addict's drug den. He has a mom, dad, sister, brother. The mother, acknowledged in the dedication as the one "who kept us together," is beautiful and patient and seems to love each one of her charges equally. The sister is barely seen in this story. So any drama or conflict is almost entirely between father and Itzkoff, who's university-educated, a writer for the New York Times, about to be married to a wonderful woman, a person who would appear to have every reason to be confident in his role as a successful American male.
But Itzkoff is a veteran of a Terrible Childhood, at least as he remembers it. His father, though officially in recovery from his cocaine addiction, still has a few memorable slips. When Itzkoff is 15, his father calls from Manhattan, lost in the city, stoned out of his mind, begging to be found. "I answered him in spite: 'I'm not coming to pick you up. You figure out how to get home.' " When his father does manage to get home, the tables are turned: "You have raised an awful, awful child, Maddy," the father raves to his wife. "Let me tell you something . . . he is done in this family. Finished! He is cut off from now on. I'm not giving him anything." Except that on the next page, his parents, in tears because of a high school teacher's mean remark, offer to buy Itzkoff a nose job, which he readily accepts.
This memoir, though fascinating, seems to be less about cocaine than about who "owns" the family - who is the hero and who is the villain, and how a family can pull together to assimilate its troublesome ethnic history. Itzkoff and his father can't get shut of each other; they drive each other nuts. Eventually, when Itzkoff has become a young adult, they go for a year of couple's therapy (!), which, of course, is a year-long lesson in embarrassment because Dad won't play by therapy rules, won't accept his place as a lowly client and eventually suggests to the sweet therapist, "I wonder if you would ever consider going into therapy with your father. I think you both might benefit from it." Itzkoff stops speaking to his dad, who, after obliviously jabbering on for a few more hours, asks, "Well, aren't you going to say anything?"
"Not until you apologize."
"What did I do?"
"You know what you said."
And so on. Dad won't mend his ways. He's hell-bent on remaining his own embarrassing self. Itzkoff finally, one way or another, lets go of his own fixation. His father's addiction was a long time ago. And maybe it wasn't the cocaine that was upsetting Itzkoff anyway. Maybe it was the way his dad shouted on the phone in his office at the top of his lungs. Or persisted in treating his own home as if it were his castle.
By the end, Itzkoff grows up and allows himself to be happy. But just wait until his first kid is born.
See reviews books every Friday for The Post.