Summary (Magill's Literary Annual 1997)
James Carroll is known as the author of nine well-received novels. An American Requiem: God, My Father, and the War That Came Between Us, however, is a work of nonfiction in which the author lays bare the tragic story of his relationship with his distinguished father, General Joseph Carroll. Joseph Carroll held important positions in U.S. Intelligence throughout the 1950’s and 1960’s and therefore during much of the Vietnam conflict that did much to create and deepen the estrangement between father and son.
The course of the relationship between father and son is in great measure the story of the younger Carroll’s attempts to establish his own identity while simultaneously preserving the paternal bond. The problem confronting him, Carroll writes, was how to be “both a man and a son.” In the end, perhaps inevitably, the task was beyond reach, leaving deep wounds that Carroll exposes in this poignant, often gripping, memoir.
Because of Joseph Carroll’s high position in American government, An American Requiem takes the reader on a panoramic tour of American history in the first decades following World War II. Carroll’s childhood encompassed his father’s triumphs as an FBI agent and his personal elevation by Director J. Edgar Hoover himself, who brought Joseph Carroll to Washington, D.C., and made him the agency’s chief troubleshooter.
The elder Carroll’s accomplishments led to his appointment as director of the U.S. Air Force’s Office of Special Investigations (OSI) followed by appointment to head the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), which under its new director became a powerful counterfoil to the Central Intelligence Agency. The first appointment resulted in Senator Stuart Symington, a key congressional backer who had been the first secretary of the Air Force, becoming General Carroll’s mentor; the second brought him into close association with Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. Joseph Carroll led the DIA until 1969, when his refusal to misinform Congress on the state of Soviet strategic doctrine led to his ouster and retirement. In 1991, suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, he died at the age of eighty.
In the intervening years, Joseph Carroll’s career in the FBI and the military took his family from Chicago to the nation’s capital in 1947, at the outbreak of the Cold War. From there, in the 1950’s, they traveled on temporary assignment to Germany; and, returning stateside before the end of the decade, arrived in Washington in time to live through the heady days of John F. Kennedy’s presidency. They were therefore also in time for the emergence of the Civil Rights movement, and the tragic history of assassination followed by a war that divided America and eventually destroyed Lyndon Johnson’s presidency.
During this period, James Carroll moved through childhood and adolescence to young adulthood. His career path had been laid out for him by his father’s unspoken, but clearly understood, expectation that he would enter the priesthood, a vocation Joseph Carroll had rejected for himself on grounds of his unworthiness. Religion in the Carroll household—Joseph, his wife Mary, and their five sons—betokened a world of suffering and asceticism. Sex was unmentioned. This traditional Roman Catholic world jarred badly with James’s early libidinal stirrings. Although James joined the Paulist Fathers and was ultimately ordained a priest, collision with a church he came to see as “rigid, morose, and moralistic” became unavoidable. More fundamentally, he came to feel that the choice of a clerical life was not his own. To become a man, he must defy his father’s expectations and leave the priesthood.
From within the church, Carroll’s sub rosa filial rebellion proceeded at one remove from its hidden paternal focus. Radicalized by new winds of liberation theology, the Civil Rights movement, and, especially, the Vietnam War, the dissident priest could not prevent tensions with General Carroll, followed by open breach and his father’s declaration that he would not speak to his son again. The author’s account of this history is, by turns, loving, agonizing, and heartbreaking, its final act of separation seemingly beyond hope from the outset. It is the stuff of Greek tragedy.
Along the way, readers meet some of the familiar names of the era’s political and social history. Carroll begins his journey of self-discovery and separation from the expectations of an emotionally repressive family through popular music, especially that of Elvis Presley, whom Carroll once glimpsed at a club frequented by GIs in Germany. He meets J. Edgar Hoover, whom he later considers his personal enemy, and Cardinal Francis Spellman, a family friend who wished to ordain him. He dates Lynda Bird Johnson, daughter of Lyndon Johnson, cruising the Potomac on the vice presidential yacht with the girl’s parents. His family has an audience with Pope John XXIII (a “counter- Elvis”);...
(The entire section is 2025 words.)
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