Fatheralong begins as a meditation on the lifelong shallowness that Wideman perceives in his ties to his own father, Edgar, and his recent efforts to redress the situation by cultivating a belated understanding of him. He hopes that such understanding might also foster the recovery of a larger male kinship across generations to reverse the psychic fatherlessness that he has come to regard as the normative condition of black sons in white America.
Two-thirds of the way into the text, however, John briefly alludes to his own imprisoned son—a situation he now shares with Edgar, father of Rob—the title subject of Wideman’s celebrated 1984 work Brothers and Keepers. In a horrific extension of the family tragedy that had seen Rob given a life sentence for a murder resulting from a bungled robbery, John’s younger son Jake had, at age sixteen, inexplicably murdered another teenager in an Arizona motel and had been given his own life sentence. Once again, then, the memoir form permits Wideman an imaginative vehicle to help contextualize his pain and confusion. In Fatheralong, he eventually dissolves all pretense of narrative distance by composing an open letter directly to Jake, the mystery of whose psychotic self-destruction “all these father stories” have, he admits, been an attempt to elucidate.
Fatheralong announces virtually from the outset Wideman’s hard-won faith in the restorative power of recovered stories. It juggles heterogeneous autobiographical materials in an attempt to have the pieces glance off of and illuminate each other in unpredictable ways made possible through the creative process itself, now seen by Wideman as a locus of healing as well as linkage: “I’m setting down part of a story, a small piece of what needs to be remembered so when we make up the next part, imagine our lives, our history, this piece will be there, among the fragments lost, found, and remembered.” Here the shaping sensibility of the memoirist seems humbler than in Brothers and Keepers, a measure in part of Wideman’s having passed the half-century mark by the time of its composition—a milestone to which he repeatedly alludes.
A text grounded in his journey with his own father to investigate the Wideman family’s ancestral home, all too conveniently located in Promised Land, South Carolina, it is first and foremost a book about time and history and the ways in which the latter can buffer the ravages of the former, so long as the stories of the past are sustained in living relationship to the present. It is in trying to fathom the loss of generational continuity between black fathers and sons—the absence...
(The entire section is 648 words.)