October 31, 2019
(+++) OH DAD, POOR DAD
Dad’s Maybe Book. By Tim O’Brien. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $28.
Nearly 400 pages of self-conscious navel gazing in the guise of a series of letters to children, Dad’s Maybe Book is Tim O’Brien’s would-be testament to himself as a late-in-life father of two boys. This is not offered as a 21st-century version of Wordsworth’s Song of Myself, but that is, in effect, what it is, although there is nothing here as poetic as the line, “I celebrate myself, and sing myself.” Instead, there are letters written starting in 2003, when O’Brien had a one-year-old son and another one due soon, as O’Brien faced his own mortality and the realistic belief that his children would know him only as an old man, if they would really “know” him at all. Trying to cope with this gloomy prospect, O’Brien decided to produce for his children what his own father never made for him: a series of notes ending “Love, Dad,” which might or might not be possible to assemble in a book (hence this book’s title).
The chapters in Dad’s Maybe Book do not literally end “Love, Dad,” but they are a labor of love nonetheless. However, this is not a how-to book about parenting and not really a book from which other fathers, even ones of O’Brien’s age, can extract very much wisdom or usefulness beyond the foundational idea of leaving something for one’s children that will tell them what you wish they would know about you. This is partly a book in which O’Brien tries to “channel” his own father as he, in reality, wasn’t: O’Brien keeps his father’s ashes in an urn on a bookcase and writes about his dad frequently. The book also appears to be an attempt to get his boys to develop an interest in Ernest Hemingway: O’Brien writes about him often as well. To what purpose? That is not particularly clear. An author himself, O’Brien writes at one point that “as I return to Hemingway’s stories and novels, I am often stopped – in awe, in surprise, in confusion, in recognition, in delight, in contention, in envy – by a single word or phrase. For instance, in ‘The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber,’ the writer in me is stopped by the word ‘plunging’…[which] is a conscious word choice: it appears three times on the same page. …I stop and stare. …I think: Oh, Christ, I cannot under any circumstances, in any novel or in any story of my own, use the word ‘plunging.’”
What O’Brien’s children make of this, or made of it, is unclear; that may show up in decades to come when and if they write books of their own. But the point in Dad’s Maybe Book is that this sort of material constitutes what O’Brien considers important and memorable about himself, what he wants his children to have as “takeaways” from his life. Readers may find all this a tad mystifying, but then, one’s self-image and the way one developed it will likely always be a mystery to anyone who comes to know a person only after that person reaches his 60s.
O’Brien describes himself as “someone who frets over word choices with the neurosis of a scab picker,” but that is not always obvious in Dad’s Maybe Book, which seems more concerned with grand themes than the small events that make up everyday life: colic, homework, basketball games (although O’Brien writes about all those). On balance, there is not really very much that is quotidian here: O’Brien ruminates on war a lot and frequently returns to his antiwar beliefs and feelings, for example in discussing his tour of duty in Vietnam and looking for parallels between it and the 1775 Battle of Lexington and Concord. And perhaps inevitably, near the end of Dad’s Maybe Book he presents an essay about Hemingway’s writings on war and death.
What are readers to glean from all this, especially readers not immersed in Hemingway or deeply involved in the works of other literary figures about whom O’Brien writes, such as F. Scott Fitzgerald, George Orwell and Flannery O’Connor? Well, there are some matters in Dad’s Maybe Book to which other parents can relate, such as O’Brien’s interest in things he hopes his sons accomplish, his pride when they succeed and his troubled feelings when they fail at anything, even his longstanding interest in magic – topics like those reach out to other parents in a way that the nearly ceaseless antiwar message and ongoing literary analyses may not. And of course the underlying premise of the book, that a father – especially an older one – will miss a great deal of his children’s lives, and must regard that situation with realism mixed with regret, is one that will resonate with mothers and fathers alike. There is enough commonality of parental experience in Dad’s Maybe Book to make the book episodically interesting and even moving for members of families other than O’Brien’s. But there is enough in it that is highly personal and irrelevant to parents in general to turn Dad’s Maybe Book into a book that may be useful to O’Brien’s children in the future but may be less than compelling to pretty much anyone else.