Fathers and Sons

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

For the twenty-three contributors to this volume, the terrain of father/son relations is clearly treacherous ground, but they doggedly survey this prickly territory, in spite of the pain. As John Skow’s introduction suggests, a melancholy haunts these autobiographical stories, a desperation over articulating the emotions that mothers and daughters are somehow able to convey to each other. Between men there remains only an awkward silence.

Many stories describe this problem of using language to express and disguise feelings by focusing on that moment when a father and son’s struggle with words collapses into an ambiguous gesture—a gruff, drunken hug, a reluctant spanking, a tender but tense game of catch. Intimacy is implied, affection displaced into oblique physical action. As Charles Gaines puts it in “Cooking the Rat,” the father can’t say it, he can only keep serving himself up to the boy, hoping that the son will someday be able to read the text of this inarticulate behavior.

Another recurrent theme is the search for the lost father: lost to war (Stratis Haviaris’ “Every Time I Spill Red Wine I Panic”), to divorce (Kent Nelson’s “The Middle of Nowhere”), to suicide (Keith Barret’s “Promises”), to early death (David Seybold’s “In the Company of Demons,” Nick Lyons’ “Finding Father” and Jim Fergus’ “My Father’s Son”). The father’s absence becomes the defining feature of the young man’s...

(The entire section is 489 words.)