A Father’s Words, Richard Stern’s seventh novel, has the same qualities that made his previous six critical successes: believable and humane characters, literate prose, and a fresh interpretation of a conventional story. In this novel, the refreshed convention is the tale of a son living out, up to, or short of his father’s expectations. Usually the son is the dynamic figure in such a novel; his character is in flux and formation while the father is fixed. As the son decides whether to imitate, surpass, or rebel against the model of the parent, the father remains unchanging in his social and psychological identity. The father may be an admirable hero, a relentless tyrant, or a lovable eccentric, but he is fixed.
Stern’s distinctive touch is to make the father as much a character in the process of development as his children. Cy Riemer may be fifty-five years old, may have worked at the same editing job for thirty years, and may have spent his entire adult life in Chicago, but he is still maturing intellectually, emotionally, and psychologically. The key to Cy’s character is his realization that fatherhood is not a plateau but an upward slope. His four children are in their twenties or thirties, but Cy is not finished fathering them. At this age, other men may be content with being the lighthouse that signals a haven to the storm-tossed boats of their children’s lives, but Cy is more like a buoy, in the same heaving sea as the boats.
The novel is Cy’s first-person account of his eventful fifty-fifth year. It is a year of loss, separation, challenge, and reconciliation. The important losses are the deaths of his parents and his former wife’s departure from Chicago. The first causes Cy to meditate upon the legacies (emotional and psychological rather than financial) his parents have left and upon his own record of filial devotion. The second marks the end of a family tradition, because Agnes’ home was the place, even after the divorce, where the Riemers gathered as one family for the holidays. The separations are also two: the open estrangement from his older son, Jack, whose knockabout life has always worried Cy, and the subtle estrangement from Emma, his lover, whose quiet hints about marriage and settling down Cy politely but firmly ignores. How Cy responds to the challenges posed by loss and separation composes the plot.
What pulls Cy through is the old-fashioned, rare virtue of love. He is able to live up to his qualified boast in the opening chapter, “I’ve always thought I was a loved father as I am—on the whole—a loving one.” There is little sentimentality or posturing in Cy’s love; it is not the maudlin, easy affection of the greeting card. It is rather an active caring, proving itself by constant involvement. Cy is frequently in touch with his children by letter, telephone, or visit. A steady stream of words keeps Cy informed about Ben, Livy, Jenny, and Jack: their work, their worries, the state of their hearts. These conversations can be rough-and-tumble; they consist of “accusation, analysis, and critical gossip” (“the family sport,” Cy calls it). Father and children communicate by analyzing themselves and one another, just as Cy’s mother taught him. She was the one who, as Dad put it, “knew the score” about an untrustworthy world and about the need for family members to guard one another from self-deception.
If Mom’s legacy to Cy is the craving to analyze, Dad’s gift is unflagging optimism and good cheer. Without them, the family sport could not endure. Cy has always supported his children with cheerful talk as well as timely checks. He has striven to “tell them about books and truths,” so inculcating them with the spoken and written word that two have published books, and all four are relentless conversationalists and avid readers. Though not all of Cy’s conversations or visits end peaceably, they never disrupt the family harmony: The stream of calls and letters continues, the children come home for the holidays.
Underlying Cy’s active parenting is the realization that knowing his children does not mean automatically understanding them. Parenting is, after all, an art rather than a science. It possesses its own misconceptions and obstacles. As influential as a father is upon his children’s lives, he cannot control them; at best he is a “semicompanion, semiprotector, and . . . semiconductor.” The best moments for a father to accompany, protect, and conduct are not always apparent, but Cy has learned from experience that he cannot avoid intervening out of fear of making mistakes. Because he loves, he acts correctly most of the time; because he is loved, his mistakes are forgiven.
In his eventful fifty-fifth year, Cy finds that his children need different degrees of companionship and conducting. Ben hardly needs any. He is much like Cy: A successful writer, he has a relationship with a loving woman and is ready for the responsibilities of fatherhood. Jenny is almost as complete: A contented spouse and a successful writer like Ben, Jenny travels and researches with her husband. Only her reluctance to start a family worries Cy: Clearly, she needs some talking to. Livy, the younger girl, needs emotional...