When father knew best -- and after

The fashion in American fathers is changing. It always is changing, in theory at least.

The new model is gentle, caring, studiously non-macho. The old model was mostly absentee, appearing only to ''bring home the bacon.'' The new model cooks the bacon, and even washes the frying pan afterwards. In theory.

The old model was in business as provider-and-protector. He could not afford to be soft. His relationship with his son consisted of putting on boxing gloves as soon as the latter could toddle in order to teach him self-defense. It was a jungle out there, the father kept saying. His relationship with his daughter, permanently known as ''Baby,'' was practically nonexistent.

The new model of father starts off by being present at birth. His voice is patient, if not tentative, as he practices democracy with his offspring from the age of six months on up. He is forever proving, not his ''manhood'' but his ''sensitivity.''

The new father would not dream of pulling rank. ''Because I say so'' -- the operative phrase of family fascism -- will never pass his lips. He makes a career of disclaiming authority.

All models of father are, of course, just that -- stereotypes, leaving out a great deal in the interest of neatness.

There is a profound, timeless struggle going on within every parent between love and power, and it is dangerous to simplify that struggle, in life or in literature.

The new model father -- or at least somebody halfway in between the old and the new -- has been showing up with some regularity in American novels and short stories, making right-angle turns from the old orthodoxies. He is conspicuously not decisive - read John Updike, whose short stories have made Hamlet a 20 th-century father. He is conspicuously not practical -- read John Irving, whose fathers go in for dancing bears. He is conspicuously not a moralizer -- read Saul Bellow, whose rascally father in the short story ''A Silver Dish'' has to be kept in order by his shocked son.

Role reversal -- immature father, mature children -- is a convenient new pattern for literary fathers whose children are heading for business school.

Confronted by the tyranny of the self-effacing father, readers may find it almost a relief to run across a monster of the old school in ''The Mosquito Coast,'' the new novel by Paul Theroux. We are back in the nice, clear-cut Dark Ages when fathers were unapologetic autocrats playing the Almighty to their children. In as blatant a parable as one could ask for, the Theroux father takes his family to Honduras where, in the middle of a swamp, he creates his own Eden.

A technological whiz, he leaves civilization because he hates it -- and then reinvents it, gadget by gadget.

In the meantime, he is replaying the history of America as well.

Old-model American fathers always had a way of ending up as George III, with their children playing the colonies.

There are even Indians in the Honduran background as this obligatory revolution follows.

''A hero is a man who stands up against his father and in the end victoriously overcomes him.'' Freud's glib formula became the conventional wisdom that much modern fiction has seemed disposed to illustrate. Theroux has accepted the traditional plot, but now, in the age of the new-model father, he feels, as they say, ambivalent. Joyce, D.H. Lawrence, Kafka, Hemingway, and the rest wrote almost exclusively as sons, who, in fact, became artists by the act of overthrowing their fathers. The sequel, so informative in its irony, was seldom chronicled -- when the rebel sons go on to become the next generation's fathers.

We are our parents' difficult children; we are our children's difficult parents. This is the rueful double perspective Theroux and his readers, and all of us, have to live with.

How does one break the awful repetition of tyrant-rebel? The new model father -- gentle to the point of powerlessness -- is not a wholly convincing answer. Some sort of synthesis appears to be required. But where exactly does the golden mean lie between love and power? In every area of private and public life, from parenthood to foreign policy, this seems to be the new American question.

Tough question! It will take more inspiration to answer it than a baseball and two gloves, or even that perennially hopeful opener: ''Son, let's you and me have a good talk.''

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