Along with that of 17 others, the work of James Joyce, Vladimir Nabokov, and John Updike is featured in the new Everyman’s Library collection, Stories of Fatherhood. A surprising mix, perhaps, but one of the most instructive things about the book is that it proves a meaty theme can bridge the distance between even the most unalike of writers. It turns out that fatherhood is a theme – like war and peace or love and marriage – that everyone has a stake in.
As if to prove the point, editor Diana Secker Tesdell assembles a geographically, generationally, and stylistically heterogeneous array of stories. Joyce, Nabokov, and Updike are not even the most unlikely brethren in this marvelously diverse collection.
Because both ruminated on fatherhood, Franz Kafka and Raymond Carver – the phantasmagorical-inclined Czech and the workaday-oriented Oregonian – are made bedfellows. In Grace Paley’s whimsical but finally dead-serious “Anxiety,” the elderly female narrator peers down from her window in order to scold a father down below for being too gruff with his young daughter: irritated by her imitations of farm animals, he has taken her off his shoulders and planted her down on the pavement.
“Young man,” the narrator hollers, “I am an older person who feels free because of that to ask questions and give advice.”
Interrogating him on his crabby manner with his little girl, she concludes by asking him to “start all over again, right from the school door, as though none of this had ever happened,” but even after he complies, she worries about how the rest of the day will go for dad and daughter. In fact, the story is as much about motherhood as fatherhood. While Paley clearly disavows the notion that sparing the rod will spoil the child, the story commends a gentler but no less firm mode of parental authority: “Once, not too long ago, the tenements were speckled with women like me in every third window up to the fifth story, calling the children from play to receive orders and instructions.” Orders and instructions – the stuff of parenting, regardless of gender.
Helen Simpson’s troubling and funny “Sorry?” is also a study in geriatric bewilderment. Deaf in one ear, and prone to spells of vertigo, Patrick temporarily moves in with his grown daughter Rachel and her two children. Observing the three of them up close gets his dander up.
“Like so many of her generation she seemed to be making a huge song and dance about the whole business,” he muses. “She was ridiculous with them, ludicrously over-indulgent and lacking in any sort of authority.”
Even worse, however, is what happens when Patrick plays around with his hearing aid: so-called “auditory hallucinations” reveal streams of suppressed rage from Rachel. In his imagination, she tells her old man off: “...never good enough for you, you old beast, you never had any time for me, you never listened to anything I said.” This is a memorable and wholly unexpected expression of fatherly anxiety over the raising of children. That night, a widower awake by himself in bed, Patrick insists that he and his late wife did the best they could – we believe him.
Alienation between the generations is touchingly rendered in one of John Updike’s finest late stories, “My Father’s Tears.” As the story begins, a father grows misty-eyed in his son’s presence – a never-to-be-repeated occurrence – when he sees the young man off at a train station after a visit; he is returning to his studies at Harvard, having gotten a little too big for his britches, and it is more than the paterfamilias can bear. “I was going somewhere, and he was seeing me go,” the son reflects. “I was growing in my own sense of myself, and to him I was getting smaller.” Seen from the father’s perspective, Updike makes the moment as full of betrayal when Caesar asked, “Et tu, Brute?”
Yet in the matter of fatherhood, discord is never as potent as despair, and the best stories here reflect the latter emotion arising in the absence of a father. In Jim Shepard’s “The Mortality of Parents,” a 14-year-old turns to prayer when his father is hospitalized. Accounting for his “previous lack of interest” in divine intercession, he explains to God that he didn’t want to inundate Him with trivial requests, but now he has a big one – the biggest of them all. Here, his shift to religious belief is no less convincing – but much more heartfelt – than Pascal’s Wager.
“When I’m at my most honest, my formulations all express the same terror,” the boy says. “I can’t live without him. I can’t live without him. I can’t live without him.”
It is appropriate that “Stories of Fatherhood” concludes with William Maxwell’s “The man who lost his father.” The title, of course, describes all of us, eventually, just as the questions the titular character asks himself are ones we will, too, one day. Mulling that which was unsaid between father and son, the man asks, “Why didn’t I ask him why I had a chance?” The answers he gives himself have a startling shock of recognition that is typical of the stories in this eminently relatable, endlessly readable collection: “Because you thought there was still time. You expected him to live forever…. because you expect to live forever.”