Two and a half years ago I set out to write a memoir of my father’s life, a complicated life that had always been a troubling puzzle to me. He was a man of high ideals, deeply held beliefs about justice, a great knowledge of history, sharp, funny, a lover of animals, underdogs and soul music, particularly Sam Cooke. He was also, when the mood was upon him, a monster to his own family, conducting a relentless war over the dinner table every night. A story that I thought might take a year or so to write has so far taken two and a half years. The manuscript I have to wrestle with now is almost 1,200 pages, goddamn it. I am continuing to wrestle with it, in my way.
It was tempting initially to structure the story of my father’s life with his dramatic deathbed regrets the last night of his life saved for the end, a kind of cosmic punchline at the end of a life insisting he’d had no choice but to strafe his children whenever he felt cornered. He was literally cornered there at dinner, he sat in the worst possible seat at the kitchen table, landlocked between the wall, the counter with the toaster on it and the refrigerator, with my sister blocking his egress. I had the best seat, right by the door, and often took advantage of it whenever I couldn’t stand the heat and had to get out of the kitchen.
I came to realize, as I worked on the book, that setting the story up that way, with the big reveal at the end, was no favor to the reader or any kind of worthwhile dramatic revelation, really. Not to say it wasn’t dramatic, or a revelation, but not one to save to the end of the story. It’s not really a suspense story, or a mystery, though it’s also a suspense story and a mystery.
My father was a perplexing riddle, true, but perhaps every father’s life must be a riddle to his children. When you think of telling the story of any life, boiling it down to a book, you are talking about a riddle. Every human life is a riddle, human history is a riddle without an answer and much of what we experience here falls into that category. I’ve had to keep this in mind as I work in a darkened room, trying to put together a puzzle that is missing many pieces, under the dimmest of lights. The fragments, I think, are probably story enough. Then again, I am not the judge of how much of a story I have managed to tell so far.
You can read all of it, in no particular order, here.
The other site I refer to at that link, while it does have some good photos and a selection of somewhat evocative early segments, hasn’t been updated for maybe a year and a half. Feel free to check it out, but be forewarned.