Tag: fatherhood

Munro, “Walker Brothers Cowboy” (1958)

alice munro 1978 walker brothers cowboy

Alice Munro, 1978.

“… and I feel my father’s life flowing back from our car in the last of the afternoon, darkening and turning strange, like a landscape that has an enchantment on it, making it kindly, ordinary and familiar while you are looking at it, but changing it, once your back is turned, into something you will never know, with all kinds of weathers, and distances you cannot imagine.” The penultimate lines in Munro’s “Walker Brother Cowboy,” the first story in her first collection of stories, the lines that sealed my conversion to her, though I was well on the way after the briefest of pages in this story of a young daughter’s realization that fathers have pasts, that sometimes those pasts took the form of intimacies that, seen again up close, even as distant shimmers of what once was, can still have the shock of something adulterous. The girl and her little brother have joined their traveling-salesman father in the poor drab backwoods of the Ontario prairie (“We play I Spy, but it is hard to find many colours.” It’s details like this that say drab without saying it.) It’s the 1930s. Their mother stays home, and after a failed sale and a bit of humiliation–the father got pee sprinkled on him–he takes a detour down, well, yes, memory lane. Nora had been his former girlfriend, his lover, something intimate enough that they’d danced and don’t a lot more. She discovers that her father does drink whisky after all, at least with a certain person, from a certain time. The girl witnesses the visit, and learns that certain things must be kept between her and her father, who earlier had described to her the formation of the Great Lakes. The immensity of time, prompting this from the girl: “The tiny share we have of time appalls me, though my father seems to regard it with tranquillity. Even my father, who sometimes seems to me to have been at home in the world as long as it has lasted, has really lived on this earth only a little longer than I have, in terms of all the time there has been to live in. He has not known a time, any more than I, when automobiles and electric lights did not at least exist. He was not alive when this century started. I will be barely alive—old, old—when it ends. I do not like to think of it. I wish the Lake to be always just a lake, with the safe-swimming floats marking it, and the breakwater and the lights of Tuppertown.”

Dance of the Happy Shades, 1968

Kafka, “The Judgment” (1912)

loire kafka the judgment

Un pont sur la Loire, 2013. (© Notebooks)

The father slays the son. Georg Bendemann writes a letter to a friend who left for (unsettled, revolutionary) Russia to start a business there three years earlier. The business does not go well. Georg is engaged. He lives with his father. His father makes him believe he doubts the existence of that friend in Russia, complains a lot abut his son, claims his wife’s death was much harder on him than on Georg, then says he knew of his friend in Russia all along. The father is unappreciative of his son’s care, seeing in it–particularly in his son’s attempt to cover him–an attempt to entomb him. He condemns him to die by drowning. Georg leaves, goes to the river, jumps in, an apparent suicide, as we say in the profession. The last line has been a subject of debate, as the translation doesn’t convey its nuances. There’s plenty of autobiography, but that’s irrelevant. Kafka’s writing method maybe a bit less so: he wrote in his diary that “this story, ‘The Judgment’, I wrote in one sitting of the 22nd-23rd, from ten o’clock to six o’clock in the morning. I was hardly able to pull my legs out from under the desk, they had got so stiff from sitting. The fearful strain and joy, how the story developed before me as if I were advancing over water…” That was his preferred writing method. So it’s a free-writing meditation that doesn’t lend itself to a single judgment. Kafka is working out tensions inherent to fathers and sons, and more particular to his father, who did not like Franz wasting his time writing. He’s reflecting his own neuroses. He’s projecting himself on the friend in Russia. The father in the story is not an appealing man. The explicit judgment is of the son by the father, the more powerful judgment is of the father by the son, with the mother as holy spirit.

Emma Cline, “Son of Friedman” (2019)

emma cline son of friedman

102 Elm Street, Wyandotte, Michigan.

After hazy and rambling “Los Angeles,” I wanted to give Emma Cline a second look. “Son of Friedman” is more sharply told, but remains all shimmers and throw-away insights. There’s too much knowingness, too much judgment contaminating the eye, keeping it from being more penetrating. No Flaubertian detachment in Cline. She’s at the table, hovering, like an intrusive waiter not content to just set the table. The first part of the story is in a restaurant where George Friedman is waiting for William. The intrusions are especially pronounced when Cline weasles judgy thoughts into her characters–you’re never really sure whose thoughts they are–by immunizing them with question marks: “How old was she? Twenty?” “Had he been an editor?” William is a successful producer. George no longer is, and hadn’t been much of one. Both are older, but William’s managed to keep it going, if unimaginatively so: his latest project is a buddy movie. George is barely hanging on. “He was seventy-one, with a fake knee and a hip due for replacement.” George has a son, Benji, William’s godson, in and out of rehab but now showing his first attempt at a movie at a dingy moviehouse nearby, to which he’s invited father and godfather. Over their meal George tries to push a project on William but is gently rebuffed, the same way that William rebuffed two groupies who’d tried to have their selfie taken with him. George has sunk that low. They go to see Benji’s movie. “The theatre was one of those single-screen places any schmuck with a camera could rent out and show his movie for a weekend. You could probably show your vacation photos.” Has the New Yorker always used theatre as opposed to theater or is that one of Cline’s conceits? It’s a dreadful movie, but the scene is for Benji to show his greater affection and respect for William than for his father: another stab at the old man, who Benji refers to “last but not least” as “my old man.” The Red Sea-parted distance between father and son is sharply described: “Benji was visibly grooving on the sound of his own voice, on being the focus of an audience. George could remember that feeling, acutely, though you were never supposed to make it clear you liked it, and certainly not as clear as Benji was making it, peacocking back and forth, lassoing the mike cord in one hand.” But these stories about the movie business are like stories about the writing business, almost always more interesting to those who’ve lived or worked them than to their audience. Cline is telling us how much she knows the business. But the business itself is not that interesting. It’s one of the least interesting, most common, dullest, shallowest businesses around, an illusion of the illusive aim. So the story’s one strength, that guttered relationship between father and son, in whose murky liquid is reflected the relationship between George and William, is lost to Cline’s performance trills.

The New Yorker, July 1, 2019

Sherwood Anderson, “Godliness” (1919)

Millfield, Athens County, Ohio. Sherwood anderson godliness

Millfield, Athens County, Ohio. (Southeast Ohio History Center and the City of Athens Historic Preservation Commission)

The longest so far in the collection, written in a mostly traditional narrative style, “Godliness” is a story of fanaticism, loneliness, a touch of madness in Jesse Bentley–but isn’t that always the case with fanatics–and the effects of an industrializing America. Written in four parts, the story goes multi-generational, from grandfather Jesse to grandson David Hardy, son of Louise Bentley, the unloved daughter of Jesse. He’d wanted a son. The first part is about Jesse, “a man born out of his time and place and for this he suffered and made others suffer. Never did he succeed in getting what he wanted out of life and he did not know what he wanted.” He is a brutal man driven by the fixation of serving god at the expense of ignoring and hurting everyone else around him: a pitifully conventional man in that regard. “It is God’s work I have come to the land to do,” he claims, the typical abrogation of all other responsibilities. God is not love in Jesse’s interpretation, but Old Testament vengeance, wrath and sacrifice. He has a lust for violence and blood. He channels it in his work and his indifferent hatred of those around him, his daughter in particular, who grew up studios, unloved, and ultimately strayed into brief promiscuity in her lunge for a love unrequited by her husband: “You never wanted me there and of course the air of your house did me no good,” she tells her father. “It was like poison in my blood but it will be different with him.” After failing to make him understand what she needs in a year  of hills like white elephants, she becomes mean to her husband, at times mad, not much caring for her son as she would have been of her daughter: “It is a man child and will get what it wants anyway,” she said sharply. “Had it been a woman child there is nothing in the world I would not have done for it.”

The story is framed in the country’s rapid changes and how it affects Jesse:

It will perhaps be somewhat difficult for the men and women of a later day to understand Jesse Bentley. In the last fifty years a vast change has taken place in the lives of our people. A revolution has in fact taken place. The coming of industrialism, attended by all the roar and rattle of affairs, the shrill cries of millions of new voices that have come among us from overseas, the going and coming of trains, the growth of cities, the building of the inter-urban car lines that weave in and out of towns and past farmhouses, and now in these later days the coming of the automobiles has worked a tremendous change in the lives and in the habits of thought of our people of Mid-America. Books, badly imagined and written though they may be in the hurry of our times, are in every household, magazines circulate by the millions of copies, newspapers are everywhere. In our day a farmer standing by the stove in the store in his village has his mind filled to overflowing with the words of other men. The newspapers and the magazines have pumped him full. Much of the old brutal ignorance that had in it also a kind of beautiful childlike innocence is gone forever. The farmer by the stove is brother to the men of the cities, and if you listen you will find him talking as glibly and as senselessly as the best city man of us all.


The beginning of the most materialistic age in the history of the world, when wars would be fought without patriotism, when men would forget God and only pay attention to moral standards, when the will to power would replace the will to serve and beauty would be well-nigh forgotten in the terrible headlong rush of mankind toward the acquiring of possessions, was telling its story to Jesse the man of God as it was to the men about him. The greedy thing in him wanted to make money faster than it could be made by tilling the land.

But the story fails to convincingly connect Jesse’s increasing materialism with his fanaticism as much as it does to his inability to keep even the closest thing to a person he’s loved, David, close to him. One day when David is 15 Jesse wants to sacrifice a lamb to god. David is frightened by his grandfather rushing him with a knife, though Jesse was only rushing for the lamb David was holding. David runs off and fires a sling shot at his grandfather, knocking him out cold. David, having felled Goliath, thinks he’s killed him. He runs away, never to return.


The story did not appear in a magazine before publication in “Winesburg, Ohio” in 1919.

Maupassant, “Mouche” (1890)

guy de maupassant mouche canotiers seine

Anthony Morlon, “Les canotiers de la Seine” (1865), musée Fournaise, Chatou.

Trois hommes et un couffin, with the addition of two more men and a child never born. It’s one of Maupassant’s many stories from the Seine, where he was an enthusiastic canotier: “ma grande, ma seule, mon absorbante passion, ce fut la Seine,” he wrote somewgere, a line echoed in this story: “… la Seine. Ah! la belle, calme, variée et puante rivière pleine de mirage et d’immondices. Je l’ai tant aimée, je crois, parce qu’elle m’a donné, me semble-t-il, le sens de la vie.” Five men revel in their boat on the Seine and take on a woman they call Mouche: “Elle était gentille, pas jolie, une ébauche de femme où il y avait de tout, une de ces silhouettes que les dessinateurs crayonnent en trois traits sur une nappe de café après dîner entre un verre d’eau-de-vie et une cigarette. La nature en fait quelquefois comme ça.” She’s an eternal drunk. Why “Mouche”? “Parce que c’est une petite cantharide!” As in: “Spanish fly (Lytta vesicatoria) is an emerald-green beetle in the blister beetle family (Meloidae). It and other such species were used in preparations offered by traditional apothecaries, often referred to as Cantharides or Spanish fly. The insect is the source of the terpenoid cantharidin, a toxic blistering agent once used as an aphrodisiac.” (Wikipedia.) She ends up sleeping with all five. “On laissait par délicatesse Mouche à «N’a-qu’un-Oeil», du samedi soir au lundi matin. Les jours de navigation étaient à lui. Nous ne le trompions qu’en semaine, à Paris, loin de la Seine, ce qui, pour des canotiers comme nous, n’était presque plus tromper.” She gets pregnant. They all agree: “Ce n’est pas la moment de l’abandonner et la recherche de la paternité est interdite.» And N’a-qu’un-Oeil commands: “Elle a eu, en cette circonstance, la délicatesse de me faire des aveux complets. Mes amis, nous sommes tous également coupables. Donnons-nous la main et adoptons l’enfant.” They’re joyful in paternity. But one day she is either drunk or overly eager to get off the boat. She stumbles. She falls. She loses the baby. They promise to make her another one.


L’Écho de Paris, 7 février 1890, L’Inutile Beauté..

Carver, “Father” (1961)

A Hemingwayesque story of a page and a half devastating in the simplicity of its indictment of a mother’s possible faithlessness or the father’s disconnection from his family as the family gathers around her latest of four children, the firs boy. It’s the three sisters, the grandmother and the mother cooing around the crib until one of the girls says something about the nose: “It looks like somebody’s nose.” Not her mother’s. Not her father’s. Sister Phyllis immediately tries to divert the cooing to something else. Anything but “who the baby looks like.” Because “He doesn’t look like anybody,” she says, a realization she has trouble making sense of. Another girl says he looks like her daddy, but her daddy who looks like “nobody,” Phyllis says, crying briefly. All the while the father was at the kitchen table, his back to the scene. “He had turned around in his chair and his face was white and without expression.” Is the baby his? Is he just a blank?

Toyon, Spring 1961, Will You Please Be Quiet Please

Malamud, “Benefit Performance” (1943)

(William E. Sauro/The New York Times)

Father is a struggling actor, daughter is in mid-20s, in bed with an unspecified illness that seems to be her period, often quarrels with father. She receives a guest, Ephraim, a plumber, to father’s disdain. They all fight, the father questioning Ephraim’s conversational skills, Ephraim questioning the father’s ability to make a living for his family. Much fork-clanging on plates and door-slamming.

Threshold, 1943