Q: You have written a massive, more than 1,100 page, manuscript over the last two years attempting to conjure your father’s life.
A: Was that a question? Seriously? Click here rather than wasting my time with foolishness.
Q: Are you always such a testy motherfucker?
Q: Do you always answer questions monosyllabically?
A: Infrequently. May we begin the interview now? I expect you have at least one intelligent question today.
Q: You write the bulk of this ms., which is supposed to be a memoir, in the form of an imagined conversation, between yourself and the skeleton of your father who has been dead for twelve years. Was this done intentionally?
A: What? I wrote this in the form of a conversation between myself and a fucking skeleton? What?!!!
Q: I’ll assume you’re being playful here, in your awkward way. Why write a memoir in the form of a dialogue?
A: Dialogue is a beautiful thing, and sadly rare, a dying art form in our 140 character world. When you deal with a difficult person, as my father was — along with his many fine qualities — the thing that can help the most is a good talk. If you can find a way past the person’s defensiveness there is usually a lot of common ground that can be traveled together in honest conversation. I don’t advocate this for the average difficult person you may meet, the less seen of them the better, but in the case of a parent or close family member, a candid exchange of views is key to healing wounds. My father was supremely defended, he had a quick wit, an agile defensive mind, a keen intellect he could focus completely on the battle at hand, he was the master of reframing arguments on the fly to keep his adversary off balance.
Q: Sounds like quite the asshole.
A: Major league, Hall of Fame asshole. The thing was, he didn’t become that by accident. He was warped early on, by poverty and brutality. Not to excuse him, not at all. Hitler, after all, was his overbearing, autocratic Prussian bureaucrat father’s punching bag. Most people would go back in a time machine and give Hitler’s pregnant mother an abortion, if we could. One thing has nothing to do with the other, just to say — insight into how a person became an asshole can improve a relationship.
Q: I get that, but why write a massive book about a massive asshole?
A: Well, here’s the devilish thing. It’s easy to reduce a bullying person to just that– a fucking bully. You know, the guy is a brutal fucker, end of fucking story.
Q: I would appreciate less fucking cursing, we are a family blahg.
A: I’ll try to fucking keep that in mind. The book is more about the tragedy of wasted potential, squandered opportunity to be loving, and to be loved. Someone asked me the other day if I loved my father. I hesitated for a second then said it was more like love/hate. You know, it’s human nature to want to love your parents. We come from them, we go to them when we are scared, we get many qualities, good and bad, from them.
Not everybody starts out with the same amount of empathy. My father had every quality that makes a good friend. He was capable of great empathy, he was sensitive, he was smart, funny, sometimes had great insights. The tragedy of his life was that these things were often overshadowed by his incurable rage. Deep down I think he believed that life had fucked him and there was nothing he could do about it.
Q: Fucked him in a way that was not consensual?
A: In a way that was not consensual. He had nothing to say about his mother whipping him in the face from the time he could stand.
Q: That does not sound pleasant.
A: Really? (dirty look)
Little Irv was raised in what he always referred to as “grinding” poverty, and I have heard from his cousin, whose father was a Communist and who grew up quite poor, also during the Depression, that next to my father’s family, he grew up rich. Not only that, his father, my grandfather, for who I am named, never held a steady job. This was a great source of shame for my father, that his illiterate father was incapable of making a living.
Q: I can only imagine his shame on discovering that his highly literate son was equally incapable of making a living.
A: Well, there’s an eternal mystery for another time, though, obviously, you’re right. My father started life with several strikes against him. His entire life was a struggle against that sickening unfairness he was born into. You know, many people struggle against the demons of their childhood for their entire lives, repeating the same destructive patterns decade after decade. We often fight these out with surrogates, find ourselves attracted to people who conjure these forces we were forced to fight as children. It’s called “Repetition Compulsion”, reliving the same trauma over and over in different forms. If we were bullied as kids we’ll be drawn to bullies and inevitably clash with them.
Q: As you did for many years.
A: Yah, mon. The worst part was the subtlety of some of it. It might take twenty years to realize the mild-mannered, droll person you always thought of as a close friend was a vicious little tyrant waiting for their chance to express a rage that took you completely by surprise.
Q: I assume you’re referring to that insane cunt Andy?
A: No comment, except to say I object to your use of that fucking offensive c-word.
A: It is the subtle nature of the beast that made the conversation with the skeleton of my father necessary, I think. If someone asks what was remarkable about my father I always start with the idealistic work he did intervening in NYC public High School riots in the sixties and early seventies. Nothing shows his idealism and humanism more clearly than the rapport he built up with gang leaders, how he won over hard case after hard case by his wit, humor and empathy.
Q: He sounds like a great guy.
A: He was a saint. Once he was dying he got the insight that had eluded him for the almost eighty-one years of his life. He realized, for the first time, that his life could have been completely different if he hadn’t been so intent on prevailing all the time, if he had developed a talent for seeing nuance, for extending the benefit of the doubt, for doing the things in his personal life that he did professionally with the violent gang leaders he worked with in the sixties. You understand his life as a tragic story, rather than the story of a monster.
Q: Well, he never killed anybody, or built any death camps.
A: No, not at all. Most of all, he never learned to get past his rage and disappointment. He never learned to forgive, anyone, including, and most tragically maybe, himself.
Q: Your sister famously said, after he died, that she thought he’d never had a happy day in his life.
A: Maybe so. When I think of him I always recall Kurt Vonnegut’s comment about what he feared his children might say about him after he died, that he had told such wonderful, funny stories but had been such an unhappy man. My father was funny, and loved to laugh, sometimes laughed uncontrollably, but he lived a fairly unhappy life.
Q: Living a happy life is a difficult art, no?
A: Without question. Look around at the lives of quiet desperation you can see in every direction. Hey, homo sapiens are murderous former prey animals. We prey on each other. Our lives here are ruled, to one extent or another, by fear. We are right to be afraid, there are plenty of fearful things to fear, not least of all our inevitable deaths, but at the same time, we need to face our fears in order to live at some kind of peace with them, though it is easier to run from them, pose as though we are brave, belittle others for being afraid, and weak, and so forth.
Q: I assume that was what your father did for most of his life — run, pretend to be brave, belittle others for being afraid.
A: I’m afraid so.
A: “Your point is taken,” he said, the passive voice used. In summary, the Book of Irv is the conversation with me that my father wished we could have had while he was alive. It is a reclaiming of his life in light of the revelations he had while he was dying — it is the best of him. As he was dying, and news that he was dying arrived suddenly, six days before the end (although he’d had the undiagnosed liver cancer that killed him for God knows how long) he went into spiritual overdrive, trying to make sense of his life. This fearless moral inventory is something few people ever undertake.
Luckily for both of us, that last night of his life, he was able to organize the results of his fearless moral inventory and express them. Also, I’d reached an emotional understanding that enabled me to listen to him without judgment, blame or anger. Truly, it was easy on my end, as only empathy for the poor devil remained at that point. I wasn’t going to lie to him as he was dying, but I was going to listen to everything he had to say without resistance of any kind. My mildness encouraged him to speak openly. I did my best to reassure him when I could, to help make his death as easy for him as I could. I truly felt that I had entered a kind of sacred space when I entered the room where he was dying. I’d read that first in Sherwin Nuland’s How We Die, and felt it immediately that last night in the hospital.
A: So, in other words, the skeleton you are talking to in this ms. is your father, after his deathbed revelations? You are reclaiming the best of him in this memoir of the Dreaded Unit.
Q: Bingo. The skeleton sometimes gets up on the wrong side of the grave and we see flashes of the famous prick he often was in life. But for the most part, the skeleton continues the conversation my dying father started that night, a talk he lamented being incapable of having before that last night of his life.
Q: So you had a real conversation, finally. That must have been a blessing for you.
A: Well, yes and no. He expressed regret, apologized for the first time, acknowledged that I had tried to be the mensch while he had been the fucking baby. It was a good starting point for a relationship.
Q: Sounds like a beautiful thing.
A: Yeah, except for the fact that he was dead.
Q: Hence, the Book of Irv.
A: Yes, ma’am.