I had an adversarial relationship with my father. My sister named him The Dreaded Unit (D.U.), not inaccurately. He embraced the name, often signing his neatly printed notes “The D.U.”, but he was also a great humanist, a broken-hearted idealist, reflexive champion of the oppressed, friend of the underdog, a man with a dark, wicked sense of humor, a great lover of animals and of soul music. He was also a keen student of history and could speak flowingly on a variety of subjects without notes of any kind.
I should explain our adversarial relationship, since the roots of such things are important and you will want to know up front who is writing this book you are thinking about reading. I started our long war myself as a week-old infant, staring implacably into my new father’s face from my crib with wide, black, accusatory eyes, never making a sound.
This creepy, aggressive behavior soon forced him to move the crib from his side of the bed to my mother’s side. Not nine weeks later, upping the ante dramatically, I threw a precocious and violent temper tantrum, scaring the shit out of my poor parents. The pediatrician laughed, he’d never seen such a contumacious little ten week-old as this rigid, purple bastard lying on his table. My senseless fight against my parents escalated in a straight line from there. When I abruptly learned to speak, at ten months, all hell broke loose between my father and me.
On the last night of his life, from his deathbed in a Florida hospital, my father apologized for being such a desperate, clueless, angry man. He acknowledged that he’d felt me reaching out to him many times over the years, but that, sadly, he had been too fucked up to respond to his son’s natural human impulse. He took the entire blame for our contentious relationship, then he died.
Ten years later, when I began this short memoir of my father’s life, 1,200 pages ago, I had little idea where the project would take me. I thought that almost fifty years of prosecutorial back and forth with a highly intelligent, highly principled adversary, often related to the enormous social upheavals going on around us, would make an interesting memoir.
A few pages in, by complete surprise, the skeleton of my father popped out of his grave to give me shit about something I’d written about his childhood. This struck me as a stagey, hokey literary device, a literary rubber crutch, but I wrote down what he said anyway, figuring I could always lose it in the rewrite.
I didn’t lose it in the rewrite. The skeleton was soon back, virtually every day thereafter whenever I sat down to write. The fucker was waiting for me some days, in his new interactive persona as the skeleton. On those days he was always cheerful, urging me on, collaborating breezily in the telling of his story, adding details I’d forgotten to mention, bringing up things I could not have known. The focus of the writing soon shifted from attempting a straight narrative of his life to our ongoing dialogue about his life, my life, the beautiful, complicated, perplexing world we are all required to live in.
I came to see that there was the D.U., my father during his life, an implacable enemy who would resort to brutality to achieve his ends, and the skeleton of my father, a personality much closer to the great friend and mentor my father was always capable of being. It struck me that, along with the realizations he’d had right before he died, he’d also had a decade to mull everything over.
I then… blah, blah, blah.
“OK, Elie, tear it out of the typewriter, crush it into a ball and go for a buzzer beater,” said the skeleton. “The game clock is winding down, Knicks down by one point, Widaen alone at the top of the key — four… three… two…”