On Fatherhood, and Lessons for Sons
By DeWitt Henry, Prose Editor
Dad’s Maybe Book by Tim O’Brien (Houghton Mifflin, 2019. 382 pages, $28.00 hard cover, ISBN 978-0-618-03970-8.)
Tim O’Brien is back in top form. His last novel, July, July, appeared when the author was fifty-nine. This new book, a nonfiction hybrid, is part journal about his late parenting and marriage, part memoir and confession, part picked-up pieces, part brooding on mortality, part anti-war credo and satire, part writing manual, and part love-letter to his sons (and to their generation) in preparation for their comings of age, most likely after he is gone. He wants his sons Timmy and Tad to hear his voice as adults: “you will also do bad things….and I wish I could be there, always, to offer forgiveness. I hope you will find my ghost in those pages, my best self, the man I would wish to be for you.” (p. 3)
The cycle he addresses is both gender-specific and post-gender: his own coming of age as his father’s son, the choice when drafted to serve in Vietnam (his social conscience prevailing over moral conscience) and his struggle as a man and as a writer to “own” that choice afterwards and, in a sense, to expiate it with a pro-life choice: to raise a family, to be a father—as fate would have it—of sons. This writer Dad is remarkably honest and vulnerable and by turns, funny, affectionate, prophetic, clarifying, and deeply moving. He is neither Polonious nor Lord Chesterfield.
Following on an early divorce, his serious depression led to another breakup, which he wrote about in a 1994 New York Times Magazine cover article, “The Vietnam In Me”: “This is despair. This is a valence of horror that Vietnam never approximated. If war is hell, what do we call hopelessness?”
He doesn’t allude to that low point here, but does describe the crisis in dating his present wife, Meredith, who saw no future for their relationship unless he put writing second to family. “She very much wanted kids. I very much did not…[We] managed to work it out” (p. 14). They married and moved from Boston to Texas, where O’Brien took a teaching position at Texas State.
When Timmy was a newborn, the couple weathered the scare of his constant shrieking, which was diagnosed finally as a response to an acid reflux condition. Up until that diagnosis, O’Brien had been helpless to do more than hold the suffering baby and sing bawdy variations to “Row, row your boat,” to him. “I had been afraid my son would die,” he writes, “I am still afraid. I will always be afraid.” Tad was born two years later.
O’Brien’s memories of childcare are not as informative as Dr. Spock’s, but are more developed as “stories.” He swipes a cockroach from Timmy’s mouth. He catches Timmy willfully peeing into a wire waste basket near the toilet, but what begins as a disciplinary anecdote, with Dad’s hurt and anger needing to be chastened by Meredith and by Timmy’s apology—“a trifling anecdote, nothing more”—leads through craft to O’Brien’s seeking “some new narrative dimension. And while striving to sustain something of the humor, I would also keep an eye peeled for gravitas—a thematic heft, a moral weight—hoping the tale might elevate itself above the eccentric or entertainingly slight” (p. 27).
In this case, Timmy confesses to his Dad that he has two heads, one of which told him Daddy won’t like this and the other of which said This is gonna be fun. O’Brien responds by telling both his sons that he himself had two heads and “sometimes more than two” and tells them (and the reader) his story about his moral dilemma at age twenty-one in going to Vietnam instead of Canada. It is a story he told in The Things They Carried as “Rainy River,” and its moral weight is central to O’Brien’s vision. “I lay there in the dark, flanked by these precious little boys, still telling and retelling the story,” but he now reaches the more positive conclusion that he prefers carrying two heads as “a little armor against the soul-killing, people-killing horrors of absolutism.”
This is how the “maybe” book greatens. Partly, he is talking to his sons on paper “as if they were adults” (p. 6). But he is also talking to himself and to his readers as he relates stories about moral dilemmas, failed institutions, hypocrisy, and even bad writing and reading. He challenges his sons and readers to think for them—and ourselves.
Also sixteen years pass as he writes; and his sons become individuals and teens. Another fatherly pang is that of abandoning kisses, open doors and confidences (“the bond of oneness…the unbreakable and eternal unity between father and son”). In Ch. 38, Timmy tells him: “Dad, I like video games. I like You tube. I learn things…I’m not you. I’m me.” O’Brien replies to Timmy, “I know,” with an aside to us, “though the knowing hurts and won’t ever stop hurting” (p. 240).
Some chapters have the recurring titles of “Home School,” “The Magic School,” and “Lesson Plans,” to highlight his ironic instructions. Others develop the remembered and imagined portrait of O’Brien’s deceased father (see Ch. 29, “Turkey Capital of the World” and Ch. 32, “Timmy and Tad and Papa and I (ii)”). Memories of his father’s silences as an alcoholic fuel O’Brien’s determination to be fully present to his sons. In boyhood, O’Brien had felt that “everything around me was still a great mystery—the moon, mathematics, butterflies, my father.” Yet as an adult writer, he can imagine, “‘Forgive me,’ says your father, without ever quite saying it, and you do.”
For the writer, shuttling between “who was my father?” and “who am I here, as a father?” prompts lessons in reading, writing, and the works of Hemingway, whose collected stories were the first book ever given to O’Brien by his Dad. O’Brien now asks his sons (and readers) to read Hemingway’s stories and consider their subtexts, where “the exciting and dramatic parts had been left out.” If his sons one day grow to be “curious about their father’s interior life,” they could learn to read it there. He identifies especially with “Soldier’s Home,” which was an enduring “influence” on his work, yet not as powerfully as war itself: “I wrote my stories to interrogate my own nightmares, my own frozen and inarticulate memory, even if—not because—Mailer, Vonnegut and Hemingway had earlier interrogated theirs.”
He wants his sons to know him as a writer and to value writing. “I used the stories of Ernest Hemingway as a window through which they might glimpse the things that have preoccupied me for more than fifty years—making sentences, making stories” (p.7).
One high point is a lesson in “history” (Ch. 34, “Home School”), as O’Brien fully researches and imagines the Battle of Lexington and Concord from the perspective of the British regulars and weaves it together with his first person account of a disastrous combat raid in Vietnam. He forces us to look past patriotism to the evils of “absolutist” violence itself and to contemplate parallels between American Colonists and the Vietcong, the British regulars and American troops drafted to Vietnam. “Vietnam and Battle Road intersected and began to merge into a single ghostly blur across history” (p. 207), he writes, eliciting “the din of Bedlam and moral nullity [that] echoes across the centuries” (p. 227).
Another is his parody of Swift’s “A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of Poor People from Being a Burthen to their Parents, or the Country, and for Making them Beneficial to the Publick” (where the satirist proposes that their skins be used for lampshades). In Ch. 47, O’Brien offers “An Immodest and Altogether Earnest Proposal,” namely that “we eliminate the word ‘war’ from our vocabulary and substitute the words ‘killing people, including children.’” In Orwellian fashion, O’Brien proceeds to show how our platitudes and aphorisms about war attempt to mask and glorify its intolerable evil. For instance: “All’s fair in love and killing people, including children”; Woodrow Wilson’s “killing people (including children) to end all killing people.” He sustains this with devastating verve, humor, and a moral indignation comparable not only to Swift’s, say, but also to Tolstoy’s protests against eating meat.
Where the book began as simple love notes to his sons, “in late 2014, Tad proposed the idea of a maybe book. Meredith overheard. ‘You don’t have to commit to an actual book…Just a maybe book. What you’ve written about fatherhood might mean something to other parents’…’Or to their kids,’ said Tad” (p. 7).
The book became a shared, sure thing. We recognize the hurt and angry O’Brien from his earlier work, where humor was a grimace, but here is a tender and loving O’Brien. If sentiment is honest, own it, he argues.
As for silences, we’re left to imagine Meredith, who rarely appears on stage, but whose presence is everywhere. She conditions this writer to love. She talks back. She shares responsibility. She enjoys the magic shows, the boy raising and teaching. One can imagine her arguing for her story to be left more implicit than explored (indeed, she may have her own maybe book).
Rather than as a war writer, O’Brien might also object to being thought of as a spiritual writer, the way one thinks of Camus, Hemingway, or Tolstoy. But there he is. One of the essentials.
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