Scott Hutchins‘ debut novel, “A Working Theory of Love,” is a super-modern “Frankenstein“ story, or an “Oedipus Rex“-in-reverse: A young man in San Francisco resurrects his dead father–in the form an artificial intelligence machine that uses his father’s thousands of diary entries to form a mind, with a Southern gentleman’s sensibility. Hutchins told Bookish about the slightly more traditional father/son stories that have inspired him.
When I decided to take on this theme I thought it would be a cinch, but looking at my bookshelves I realized father/son stories aren’t as common as I thought. Mostly, the father needs to be completely out of the way! But here are a few titles that I particularly love.
“All the King’s Men,” by Robert Penn Warren
Sure, this monument is about demagoguery Huey P. Long-style in a time of great economic distress (hmm, suddenly sounds topical), but the real heart of the book is Jack’s attempt to come to grips with his different fathers–his feeble, saintly actual father and the grand Judge Irwin. And, of course, he’s betraying them both with his hard work for low-class Governor Stark.
“The Child in Time,” by Ian McEwan
This novel–my favorite by McEwan–is more about a father being a son. Stephen’s daughter has died (or is presumed dead) before the book begins, and what we follow is Stephen’s process of coming to grips with his loss–a process so wrenching that the past and the present become mixed up, and he seems to encounter his parents when they were young. Or his young self seems to appear to them while they’re young. Lots of time-bending. Not a cheerful read, but a beautiful one.
“O’Connor: Collected Works,” by Flannery O’Connor
OK, so it’s really Tarwater’s uncle in “The Violent Bear it Away,” but their hilarious, dark squabbles in the beginning (the uncle wants Tarwater to promise to put a cross on his grave; Tarwater says he’ll be doing good to get him in the ground) set up the alien, almost classical happenings to follow. As with all O’Connor, there’s also lots of the Father and the Son.
“Out Stealing Horses,” by Per Petterson
This book starts in the calm of a comfortable Norwegian retirement, but soon becomes about WWII and how the locals behaved themselves. Were they collaborators or resisters? For the men who were just children in the war, it matters on which side of the line their fathers stood.
“The Price of the Ticket,” by James Baldwin
Not every essay in this book is about Baldwin’s father–not even most of them. But David Baldwin stalks through these essays with his fears, his barely-expressed hopes, his strictness, his madness. James Baldwin’s enormous heart and enormous brain are a constant and renewed redemption story. I don’t know if anyone can really know America without reading these pages.
“Henry IV, Part I,” by William Shakespeare
If only you could be like Hotspur, says Henry’s disapproving father (more or less!). Never has a play more closely evoked the struggles of being a father with expectations and a son who refuses to meet those expectations. Plus Falstaff–the dissolute, rule-free dad we all thought we wanted when we were teenagers.
“About a Boy,” by Nick Hornby
I’m a sucker for Nick Hornby’s hilariously shallow man-children (and the sharp prose with which Hornby evokes them). That one of them could evolve into a convincing-ish father figure is a kind of miracle, and an incredibly enjoyable one to read.
“Maus I,” by Art Spiegelman
That the guards are cats and the interned Jews mice (trapped in a corner) is such a perfect metaphor–so psychologically precise–that it’s all the more amazing that Speigelman invented it. This is a book about the Holocaust, but it’s also about an American son trying to make sense of his father’s horrific past.
“The Mysteries of Pittsburgh,” by Michael Chabon
This is Chabon’s first–and sweetest–novel. Art’s kind, well-intentioned, mob-money-laundering father has sent him to college to get a legitimate career, but Art has no idea who he is or what he wants to do. He hasn’t even settled on a gender he’d like to sleep with. As Chabon is so good at revealing, all the chickens come home to roost.