Monday, July 6, 2009

Mini-review of Bill from My Father

“Children begin by loving their parents; as they grow older they judge them; sometimes, they forgive them.”-- Oscar Wilde

Many memoirs have been published about fathers by their adult children. The ones that are worthwhile are those that reveal to the reader something significant about human nature as personified by the father, the child, or both. I didn’t find Cooper’s memoir one of these. I’m sure that hundreds of thousands of American men born in the 20th century have stories about their fathers as awful or worse than Cooper’s. It seems that Cooper wrote about his because he happens to be a professional writer.

I knew I wasn’t going to be enthralled by the book shortly after I began reading it. As portrayed, the father is a monster of pugnacity, vindictiveness, and heartlessness. No matter what he experienced in his past, his qualities are not those of a good husband, father, or friend. In his dotage the father is only exaggerating the misanthropy that has characterized his entire life.

Cooper is a schlemiel (a habitual bungler). I was surprised to learn he was 48 when his father died since his behavior, thinking, and speaking were so immature, irresponsible, and lacking in character throughout the memoir. Maybe his guilt for not loving his father enough induced him to avoid confrontation, attempt to placate unreasonable demands, and repeatedly return to the source of his torment in hope of better treatment, much like Charlie Brown’s constantly trying to kick the football held by Lucy.

As with the comic strip “Peanuts,” I found the antics of the impossible father and weakling son mildly amusing. In a more serious vein, the story of two seriously defective men acting out their domestic drama was pathetic. Toward the end of the book, the memoir had become sickening as exemplified by the following bits:

Cooper’s prevaricating and procrastinating to his father about the father’s stay in the hospital instead of gently telling him the truth
the father’s “bill” to Cooper for his upbringing and the father’s lawsuits against his daughters-in-law
Cooper’s vacillating thoughts about his father’s making good on his threat to sue over the “bill”: “he was my father, after all, the man who bore my ‘fiscal burden,’ and every son owes his father something.” p. 177
Cooper’s tepid reaction to his father’s numerous lawsuits against his sisters-in-law: “every time he mentioned the lawsuits, I felt sorry for my sisters-in-law, and my fondness for him was compromised.” p. 202
Cooper’s scruples about taking (“stealing”) the video about Hell from his dying father because he may “have denied him [his father] the opportunity to see the video for himself and make his own decision.” p. 194
Cooper’s reflecting on a photograph of his elderly father in Bermuda shorts and knee socks, observing that “he rivaled the gazers of the ancient world: Ulysses leaning from the prow of his ship; Penelope scanning the sea at dusk.” p. 199 (This about a man who has excised his new wife from the honeymoon photo and displays the defaced picture possibly as a warning to his latest love interest.)

I found two parts of the book touching: Cooper’s description of his brothers and the trip to the cemetery to “unveil” his father’s headstone. On finishing Cooper’s memoir maybe I had learned something about human nature after all. I had learned just how horrible a sado-masochistic father-son relationship can be.