Fallible Fathers Reading List
Most of us have fathers we can admire and respect, but fathers are fallible, just like everyone else. If they leave the family, either through death, divorce or abandonment, it creates a hole in the child’s life that may take years to fill.
A few fathers are flat-out scoundrels. That creates its own kind of dynamic – not of loss, but of a lack of trust. Here are some of the best books I’ve read by authors writing about either absent or troubled fathers:
Helen Macdonald was a naturalist, teacher, and a falconer when she suddenly lost her beloved father – a British photojournalist, he dropped dead one day of a heart attack. In her moving memoir, H is for Hawk, she chronicles her grief and her effort to recover through, of all things, training a goshawk.
Macdonald, a former Well Read guest, is a wonderful nature writer, and an expert at tracing her own inner landscape as she tries to recover from terrible loss. If you have lost a father, a mother, or any other loved one and if you love natural history writing, this is a don’t-miss book.
I’m going to use this opportunity to talk about one of my favorite detective series, the Jack Irish series by Australian writer Peter Temple.
In these dark, funny and wonderfully complicated mysteries, Jack Irish is a former lawyer who quit practicing after his wife was killed by a deranged client. He’s a part-time woodworker and part-time detective, specializing in finding people who don’t want to be found. He hangs out at a local Melbourne pub, where a Greek chorus of old duffers offer him unhelpful, hilarious advice. He’s in cahoots with a racehorse owner and his Aboriginal muscleman, who draw Jack into their money making schemes.
It’s all highly entertaining, but Jack has inherited a thirst for justice from his late father, who was both a cop and a champion football (Australian version) player. His father is gone, but his shadow looms large – Jack becomes a veritable pit bull when that yearning for justice is awakened. If you want to get acquainted with Jack, start with the first book, Bad Debts. A later book, Black Tide, reveals more of Jack’s father’s story.
One of the more fearsome bad/absent fathers in recent history is Thomas Cromwell’s father in Hilary Mantel’s wonderful Wolf Hall.
As most of our viewers know, Wolf Hall tells the story of Britain’s Henry the Eighth by recasting it through the eyes of Cromwell, Henry’s commoner assistant and political fixer.
Thomas has an almost eerie ability to rise above any situation and view it with a detached and analytical eye, a helpful attribute as Henry starts running through one wife after another, which in turn provokes a split between England and the Catholic Church. Heads roll. People are burned at the stake.
Casting a huge shadow on Thomas’s life is his cruel father. The story opens with his father beating the hell out of Thomas, and things go downhill from there. Part of the tension in Wolf Hall is watching Thomas attach himself to one unreliable father figure after another – first Cardinal Wolsey, and then Henry himself. Thomas is loyal – to a fault. Wolf Hall and its follow-up, Bring Up the Bodies, are simply two of the best books I have ever read.
Another dubious dad is Magnus Pym’s father in John le Carre’s magnificent spy novel A Perfect Spy.
In real life, le Carré’s dad Ronnie, was an incorrigible con man, and the author bases Rick, father of the wayward double agent Pym in A Perfect Spy, on his own parent. Rick is a liar, and cheat, and a charmer, and whenever he says “d’ you love your dad? Well, then” to Magnus, you know something shameless is afoot.
Magnus’s inability to trust his father leads him down the path of becoming untrustworthy himself. A brilliant psychological profile, and another of my all-time favorite books.
Finally, one of the most memorable dysfunctional/absent fathers in literature is Tobias Wolff’s father in his memoir This Boy’s Life.
In this true story, Toby and his mother have been basically abandoned by his father, an unreliable charmer who has married a millionairess and is living on the East Coast. In search of some kind of stability, mother and son move all over the American West.
Toby is very close to his mother and suffers from her inability to stick with a decent guy. Particularly fearsome in the boyfriend department is Dwight, who seems sweet as pie at first and then turns into a tyrant (Dwight was played with fearsome accuracy by Robert de Niro in the movie version of this book – Leonardo diCaprio played Toby). Toby develops some dubious coping skills to deal with this situation – he becomes an accomplished liar, among other things.
This book shows what happens when a parent a child depends on for safety, sustenance and identity becomes completely unreliable. Wolff’s father was such an unforgettable character that his other son, Geoffrey, who wound up living with him, wrote his own masterful memoir, The Duke of Deception.