JUST WHEN YOU think there is no new approach to the fater-son conflict, there comes a novel with a framework so original and characters so arresting that you find youself caught up once again in this universal theme.
Like Father , a vigorous and tender first novel by David Black, compels you attention from the opening sentence:
"When my father was fifty-eight years old, after reading Henri Troyat's biography of Tolstoy, he ran away from home." In an odyssey seen through the eyes of his son Dennis, Moses the father sets out in search of his own runaway father Aaron, a colorful, outrageous character who abandoned his young sons to an orphanage (after being abondoned himself by their mother) so that he could scheme and whore his way through the world.
Dennis, the narrator, has been married seven years but is still afraid of fathering a child - unwilling to burden some unsuspecting passenger with the emotional baggage one generation hands down to the next.
" 'Dennis has this thing about fatherhood,'" his wife explains to his father, whose first stop on his flight to freedom is their farm. " 'dennis thinks that fathers have to choose between destroying their children or being destroyed by them.' " The novel becomes a three-generational examination of this thesis in a narrative rich with incident and alive with fullblooded characters.
In following his father to the furnished room where his grandfather is happily growing old without apology for earlier choices in life, Dennis makes mental excursions into the past.
His mother shows him an old tinted photograph of himself as a two-year-old, rocking on a large wooden duck. " 'Remember how much you loved that duck?' " she asks. But his earliest memory is how much he hated it.
"If there is a hell and if I am condemned to it," he says, "I have no doubt for my punishment I will be buckled into that duck and set rocking for eternity."
Like Father becomes a saga of reverberating betrayals, large and small, in which memories lie and dreams, once achieved, disappoint. $" 'In a way everything has been simple,' " Moses the father says, " 'I've always gotten what I wanted. But I've always been disappointed.' "
And his son understands. "Because his success in getting what he wanted had not changed the world in the way he had expected it to change, he felt betrayed."
Black firmly controls the narrative pace, conveying scences of intense and unexpected violence in tightly compressed sentences that explode on impact.
The violence of the emotions between husband and wife, father and son are echoed in the violence of nature. The farm to which Dennis and his wife have retreated to escape city ambition is a study in lust and death. Cats drag dead baby moles into the house and leave mangled birds in the bedroom; the wife discovers a dead dog poisoning the water in the well; overripe tomatoes split and rot on the vine.
Through the book is structured in terms of father and son, the female characters are equally vivid: the wives the grandfather marries and abandons without benefit of divorce; the 21-year old art student who takes the old man home with her after he poses in the nude for his life study class; the narrator's wife, Maxie, who wants children so desperately "her need had claws"; the runaway father's wife, Ethel, who, immediately upon abandonment, puts her house up of sale, quits her job, and starts planning a trip around the world. Her feelings of betrayal stem not so much from the fact that she has been abandoned as from the realization that "marriage had not kept her from getting old."
Out of the disintegration of his parents' marriage, Dennis is finally able to define the trouble with his own: "Being vulnerable to another, it seemed, was also being vulnerable to yourself."
He had hoped in his own marriage, "to restage my parents' conflicts and, by resolving them differently, in some occult way change their relationship and free myself from the model of marriage they had willed me. But, by trying to escape their influence, I was courting a sad repetition of their behavior, a repetition that terrified me because it seemed fated, stamped on my genes, as though it were part of some cellular baggage lugged down through the ages. As in a hall of mirrors, each generation reflects the generation before which in turn reflects the generation before."
But finally the only hope of escaping the past is to acknowledge its influence on the present. The grandfather comments that his son shaped his life to avoid his father's mistakes - only to make his own.
In a remarkable scene of reconciliation, grandfather, father, and son come together for the first time in 22 years.
" 'Twenty-two years, Moses,' my grandfather said. 'Twenty-two years.'
'I don't know why-' my father began.
'-You stayed away so long?' my grandfather interrupted.
'Why I came now,' my father said."
Fortunately the author does know, and their meeting makes it easier for all of us to go home again.