A Couple Of Books Appropos Of Father's Day, That Is, If Your Old Man Is A Sicko Sex Fiend, Or Has A Hidden Past.
By Margaret Regan
The Kiss, by Kathryn Harrison (Random House, $20); The Shadow Man: A Daughter's Search for Her Father, by Mary Gordon (Random House, $24).
MARY GORDON'S father died when she was 7 years old.
"I've always thought that was the most important fact anyone could know about me," she writes at the beginning of The Shadow Man, a riveting chronicle of her mid-life attempt to uncover the truth about her father's life.
Kathryn Harrison's father likewise disappeared from his daughter's life, when she was 6 months old. After a divorce, he became to his child "an absence, a hole like one of those my grandmother cuts out of family photographs," Harrison says in her memoir The Kiss.
Both daughters had lonely childhoods, growing up in their grandparents' houses, burdened by problematic mothers and difficult grandmothers. And both spent a childhood longing for the beloved father, in both cases a man made all the more glamorous and alluring by his absence. But that's about all that their stories have in common.
During the short seven years Gordon had with her father, he loved her passionately and devoted himself almost entirely to her. A Jewish writer who had converted to Catholicism, he taught Mary to read at the age of three, helped her to memorize the Latin Mass at five and reared her to embrace intellectual brilliance. Once, he told her, "I love you more than God." And she loved him back. Without him, she believes she would not have become a writer.
By contrast, Harrison's father was distant and surfaced only on rare occasions. He finally sought her out when she was a 20-year-old college student, when he was remarried and the father of several other children. Father and daughter were enchanted with each other. At the end of this first reunion he administered the kiss of the book's title--a deep tongue-thruster that had the effect of dividing his daughter's life into two parts, the normal life before the kiss, the abnormal after.
Soon, this unnamed father, whose identity Harrison is careful to conceal, persuades his daughter to prove her devotion to him by having sex with him.
Her memoir is essentially an account of the years-long sexual relationship that ensues, and its disabling psychological fallout. At one point the father smugly tells his daughter: "Now you'll never be able to have anyone else, because you won't be able to keep our secret.
You'll tell whoever it is, and once he knows, he'll leave you."
This is a disturbing book no matter how you look at it. Harrison, a young novelist who has published work in The New Yorker, does have the poet's touch. She compresses her repellent story into spare, beautiful, but oddly disconnected language, as though the act of setting her tale on the page helps her to disengage from it. But I'm not sure what meaning it bears beyond its therapeutic value to the author.
Far more complex than this evil tale of fatherhood gone desperately awry is Gordon's gripping memoir. Gordon is a novelist of the first rank, known for such works as Final Payments and The Other Side, complicated stories about Irish-American families snared in the dark sinews of the Irish brand of Catholicism. The spirit of her own father has always hovered over these books: She writes that he has been a model for several of her characters, and his tales of the dashing life he led before his marriage have always been crucial to his daughter's sense of her origins. In marked contrast to her rigid Irish-American relatives in Queens, David Gordon was supposed to have been a free-wheeling intellectual, a Harvard dropout who sojourned in Europe during the Jazz Age, who prized the life of the mind.
Gordon had never much questioned these stories, though she had long been uncomfortably aware that by the 1930s his writings had tilted toward the right. At age 44, though, she began a serious study of his life and work, digging up his magazine writings, checking archives, seeking out relatives. What she found irrevocably changed her idea of her father and of herself.
She's blindsided by the extreme anti-Semitism of his writing in Catholic journals, by his betrayal of his own people at a time when they were being slaughtered wholesale in Europe. She's devastated to learn that he had lied about the most basic facts of his life. He was born not in the United States but in Lithuania, five years earlier than he had claimed. He was not an only child as he'd always said, but the brother of three sisters. Not only had he not gone to Harvard, he had left high school at 16 to clerk for the railway, and on and on.
The unraveling of the fictions David Gordon constructed for himself is painful to his loving daughter, who is more horrified the deeper she digs. She agonizes over her right to unbury his secrets, to wrest him back from the death that's sheltered his lies some 40 years. But in doing so, she shines a steady light on some dark shadows of the American dream. Not all the optimistic immigrants to the new land at the turn of the century prospered here; some, like many of the Gordons, failed dismally. And in the early decades of the century a poisonous hatred for the Jews infected not only the Catholic Church but much of American culture. Gordon tries to understand the self-loathing her father must have felt. Unfortunately, the chapter that tries to reconstruct the anti-Semitic cultural milieu of his young manhood is the weakest part of the book. She concocts a surrealistic police interrogation, in which the great anti-Semites of the age, the influential H.L. Mencken among them, must defend themselves. It's not nearly as effective as her more straightforward analyses elsewhere.
Nevertheless, her book is profound. The details of both David Gordon's life and of his daughter's steady love for him give it an affecting particularity, but the work also plumbs broader themes. Besides articulating the fierce attachment of daughters to fathers, it sympathetically dissects the disillusionment nearly all grown children experience when they realize that their parents are flawed. Parents, like any other human beings, too often embrace the prevailing prejudices of their times. In her own difficult journey along this painful path, Gordon has roughed out a way to acknowledge the failings and yet continue to love.
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