"Pop died politely," Bill Henderson recalls, near the end of this memoir, which begins by evoking his quest to understand his father but ends (as efforts to understand one's father often do) in a quest to understand himself: how he began and what happened to make him what he is.
Henderson, who has just passed his 40th birthday, is the publisher of the Pushcart Press, a small enterprise as book publishing goes these days, but an honored and distinguished one. Its awards and anthologies are one of the most active ingredients in American small publishing. And in turn it has received one of the book industry's major-league accolades: the Carey-Thomas Award, which is given by Publishers Weekly for excellence in publishing.
This kind of activity is a long way from Henderson's boyhood in a Philadelphia suburb. He grew up as the son of an engineer who worked for General Electric for 37 years, a deeply (perhaps compulsively) religious man who would read only three books not related to his work, but read them over and over again: The Bible, "I Was a Pagan" and "Christ the Healler." When he was not reading, Henderson pere would spend his evenings in the basement, developing photos of his children, making useful objects, or recording speeches from the radio on an apparatus he had build. Breakfast each day was accompanied by the "Twentieth Century Reformation Hour" of evangelist Carl McIntyre whose Bible-thumping sermons in the late '40s and the '50s often dwelt on the imminent end of the world, which would come in an atomic confrontation between America and the godless Russians.
In spite of this Armageddon atmosphere, Frank Henderson was as gentle a man as he was simple. His son remembers pruning trees in the back yard: "Dead wood only. Pop always rfused to prune live wood because that would cause the trees to suffer". Sometimes, his gentleness had a rverse effect; when he went fishing, he would let the fish die slowly in the bottom of the boat because he could not bear to kill them quickly.
Bill Henderson's effort to understand his father began while the father was still alive. "Pop, I don't know anything about you," he said once, "There's nothing to know," his father answered.
He managed to get a little more information from his father about his grandfather: "He drank . . . He used to crawl across the park at night on his hands and knees. Once my mother had to lock him in the closet for a day until he sobered up . . . He begged to be let out but she wouldn't let him out." No wonder Frank Henderson made his whole family sign a pledge of total abstinence -- including a daughter who was so young she could barely write her name. But how does this relate to the fact that during the Vietnam war, Bill Henderson got a doctor's certificate that he was an alcoholic as a part of his plan to stay out of the armed forces? Or that after the father's death, the son used to go to a bar to read over his letters? a
If "His Son" has any single subject, it is encapsulated in that contrast; it is the leap from generation to generation, the strange transformations that happen as a father passes from the scene and his son moves into adulthood. Clearly, Bill Henderson is still mystified at this process, as he is by his father's background and character. It is not for lack of trying; his father's old letters, which he studied in the bar, were stolen from his mother's drawer and copied out carefully before he would sneak them back. But what they revealed simply adds minor details to the mystery of the generations.
When he abandons the search to understand his father and begins to work on himself, Henderson presents only the beginning of the transition from childhood in the '50s to manhood in the '60s, with a few thematic or symbolic fragments of his later life scattered through the book as hints. School -- particularly college -- had the usual liberating effect. He began to "search for the deeper meaning of life" in sexual adventure, in philosophy, in classical music; he discovered that the Gospels were not always as literally accurate as his father believed, and wrote the manifesto of a New Age of Reason: "We will have no dogma. We will abolish instinct and mass stupidity." But then he decided that atheism, too, was irrational.
Eventually, the father died -- much younger than his own father who survived (preserved in alcohol?) into his 80s. He died in his sleep, leaving his son a curious legacy: an old Chevrolet, which had been lovingly maintained in fine condition through 80,000 miles, and a set of riddles which are not solved in this book, which are ultimately impossible to solve. Perhaps the fate of the Chevrolet is a clue to the riddle of the generations. Henderson devotes his last chapter to it.
The car ran "without burning oil and without breakdown for the next seven years," Henderson reports. "Now and then on the Chevy's radio I'd tune in fundamentalist sermons and hymns and try to guess how it had been with Pop and me." Then he moved to New York, and the car was stolen by a gang of boys, driven to the top of a hill and turned loose. The final condition of the car may serve as a symbol of what happened to Frank Henderson's simple, god-fearing world in the '60s and '70s:
"A large rock held the accelerator to the floor. Three unopened bottles of beer lay in the back seat . . . The kids snapped the hood chain and carried off the new battery. They took all they wanted from the engine They jimmied open the trunk and stole the spare tire, tools and jack. They took the radio and two wheels and they broke all the windows with rocks. The junk man said he never saw anything like it, kids so thoroughly destructive."