I’ve heard it said that one of the best ways to get to the true, interesting meat of a character is to put them into a crisis situation and see what they do. It’s interesting how many such moments one can select like that for male characters that concern fatherhood, both in one’s relationship to one’s father and in actually being a father. The fiction and poetry in Four Fathers all work differently on that theme, and all come up with some rich results.
I enjoyed reading this book. Though not a father myself, I do have a father. We all understand that, and it always seems to have some kind of complication…both for men and women. Even if the complicated part of the relationship is that one’s father has always been absent, that’s still a complicated relationship. I don’t even need to talk about the complexity in being a father. Men or women, childless or having children, we all know parenthood is all kinds of complicated. I got into that in a good way in Four Fathers, an opportunity for me to see new stuff by two writers I love and two writers I now want to know more about.
“Where You Should Be” by Tom Williams starts out the show. In this piece, James Arthur Robinson is at an odd point in his life. As his drinking and other problems are getting out of control, he thinks back to all the advice his father gave him (particularly that directed to how to live as a man of mixed racial background in America) that he often willfully opposed. It’s not a completely pleasant thing to remember, given the direction his life is going. Odder, he’s started to see his father when his father isn’t there:
After divvying up the check, you leave five more to cover your tab, consider stopping at the bar for a quick shot or two, but Justin and Malik step toward the door, open it a crack to check on the heat, then you follow them outside, only to just avoid bumping into someone. When you look up to apologize, your mouth opens but seizes shut when you see your father an arm’s length away.
Again, it wasn’t him. The man’s hair was as silvery, but he was a full five inches taller, and his cologne smelled dearer than English Leather, without which your father never went anywhere. At home, late Friday, you scold yourself, still embarrassed how you tripped over Justin trying to avoid the man, who took one disapproving look at you—increasing his resemblance to you know who—then ventured inside. Tonight you’re not bothering with the Coke and occasionally foregoing the tumbler.
Next comes a series of flash pieces by Ben Tanzer, collectively titled “Puzzles.” In a quick space, each conveys the complete emotion of an aspect of fatherhood. All sorts of moments, both pleasure and pain (sometimes intermingled). “Lies,” where a father learns his son lied in class and is hesitant in confronting his son, is a personal favorite:
But when your son formally invites you to attend a parent-teacher conference in his bedroom that weekend, you go. You are happy to.
You walk into his room at the scheduled time and your son is sitting cross-legged in his baggy sweatpants in bed, shuffling papers, and so very serious that you sit when he asks you to.
When your son asks you if you know that your child lied in class, you say you heard something like that had happened, but that your son doesn’t tell you much, and so you certainly don’t know the whole story, not really.
Might the teacher be willing to share the story with you? you ask your son.
Of course, your son says.
Did you know that one of your son’s friends had a dog that died? he says.
You do, you say. That’s very sad, and it must be very hard for her. It is, and did you know that your son stood up and said his dog died even though you don’t have one because he thought his friend might feel better if she thought someone else had lost something they loved, but that it hadn’t worked-out like he thought it would, that she didn’t feel better, that he soon realized that he had made a mistake. Did you know that? your son says in a rush of words.
After this length of fiction, we change things up a bit with a selection of the poetry of BL Pawelek, titled “The Princess.” As one might hope with poetry, there is a lot more ephemerality in this portion of the book. We tease out the meaning more, these writings about fatherhood being couched more in hints and metaphoric references. At least, that’s the way I saw things. Just take a quick peek at one, “the prince does exist,” I particularly grokked:
the trees will grow
straight for you
every leaf perfect and green
every branch without thorn
the grey of dirt
will brush off your dresses
fall to the wind
and be carried to the oceans
the green light
at the top of the stairs
does not exist
there are no fingers and wheels
no sleep to be afraid of
the prince does exist
a hand for your slender
a lead step during the dance
during the dream
After the poetry we return to fiction with “Everything is Getting Worse” by Dave Housley. Burns is a man in a changing world. To his chagrin, his wife is devoted to Real Housewives and his nine-year-old son worships Justin Bieber. He tries to come to terms with the fact that all this isn’t what he grew up with, and discovers he’s changing too. His struggles in learning to cope has some disturbing effects:
“Hey buddy!” Burns jumps. Not again. It is the voice of Ryan Seacrest, happy and peppy and vacant. For the past six months, ever since the Adderall, he’s been hearing Ryan Seacrest in his head. If the company hadn’t scaled their medical coverage back two years ago and were still paying for psychiatry, Burns might have even sought help. As it is, he tries to put it out of his mind. Thinking too much about what all this means would not be good.
Finally, rounding out the book (bringing us both forward in a way and full circle in a way), we return to both Tom Williams and James Arthur Robinson in “What It Means to Be.” James is older, now has his act together and has a son himself. He visits his father during a time when his son pleads to hear about what James was like as a boy, but James resists out of fear he’ll end up going through what James has:
And all these things you can envision yourself doing as clearly as if they are presented on the HDTV you installed in the living room two weeks ago with only a modicum of cursing. Yet one thing you can’t envision is what your wife and son are asking for: you and the Buddy engaged in a discussion of the life you endured before things got better. And why, James? Because you worry that to share your story with your son might activate in him some dormant gene that will steer him toward the pitfalls you couldn’t avoid and from which perhaps only dumb luck saved you? That pattern might not repeat itself with the Buddy. He might not be as lucky. In short: you don’t want him to be you.
There’s some fine writing in Four Fathers: emotional, vivid, and compelling. This book isn’t just someone showing you snapshots from their wallet, instead being an examination of how particular people manage to live in their particular, individual worlds. It’s good stuff, completely separate from any interest in fatherhood.
I’d almost forgotten that I made a tiny monetary contribution to the effort of publishing Four Fathers until I saw my name in the supporters at the end. After reading, I couldn’t be more proud of what my money went to and I only wished I’d been able to cough up a little more. Read it and dig.