Book Review: Finder Keepers by Mark Bowden

  • Finder Keepers – The Story of a Man Who Found $1 Million
  • by Mark Bowden
  • Publisher – Atlantic Monthly Press
  • Copyright – 2002
  • 209 pages

Rating - 9/10

Review - What would you do if you found $1.2 million? It really happened to a Philadelphia man in 1981. The money fell out of an armored car, Joey Coyle found it – and never seriously considered turning it in. Mark Bowden tells this remarkable tale in Finders Keepers.

Bowden first wrote Coyle’s story in a three-part, 1986 series in the Philadephia Inquirer’s Sunday magazine. In the years that followed, Bowden became a “name” journalist with the success of 1999’s Blackhawk Down. Finders Keepers has the feel of a quickly-published, “reheated” version of Bowden’s 1986 series for the Inquirer. But it doesn’t matter because – wherever it came from – Finders Keepers is a terrific read.

Everyman

For readers, Coyle is a frustrating protagonist. Bowden details Coyle’s dire circumstances before he found the money; Coyle’s desperation drove him to conclude that the money was his only big chance in life. (Keeping the money was a crime; in Pennsylvania, anyone finding anything worth more than $250 was obliged to try to find its owner). In 1981, Coyle was 28, a high school dropout who could find little work on Philadelphia’s docks. He still lived in his mother’s house. Methamphetamine, which he’d injected so often that the veins in his arms were collapsing, took his meager income. (In fact, when Coyle found the money he was on the way to his drug dealer’s house in the car of two friends who agreed to give him a ride).

After finding the money, Coyle’s decisions were awful. First, he “stiffed” the two friends who were with him, giving them nothing. Then, while the story was front-page news in Philadelphia, Coyle told dozens of people about it, some of whom he barely knew. Even worse, Coyle contacted a local mafiosi, the brother of Philadelphia’s best-known gangster (Harry “The Hunchback” Riccobene); Hunchback’s brother took a few hundred thousand off Joey’s hands, promising to take it to Las Vegas and “clean” it. Finally, Joey went on a wild spending spree, passing out hundreds, and going to Atlantic City’s casinos – all while binging nonstop on speed (to the point that he never slept).

But for all of that, Coyle is still, in some ways, likable. We’ve all known people like Coyle – those with “good hearts,” but very bad judgment. In a twist, being a likable “screwup” – an everyman – actually helped Coyle as the case unwound.

Bowden the Penman

Simply put, Bowden is a terrific writer with a terrific story. The pacing of Finders Keepers is perfect, as Bowden provides enough detail to make the story work without letting it bog down. He also has a good sense of detail, choosing facts that make the story “come alive.” Here, from the book’s opening pages, is how Bowden describes Joey’s neighborhood, South Philadelphia in 1981 -

His home on Front Street was at the tattered edge of the tight matrix of South Philly’s streets. To the west was the neighborhood’s strong, nurturing core, its churches, schools, markets, and corner restaurants, and bars. It was the oldest part of the city, low houses in row after brick row, most of them just two stories high. Kinship was sewn tightly in its even blocks. Brothers lived across the street from brothers, fathers from sons and nephews and grandsons. In the narrow alleys folks would grin at the way they could sometimes see in the awkward way a boy ran or squinted or threw a ball the reflected image of his grandfather or great-uncle. When a man from South Philly said he knew a fellow ‘from the neighborhood,’ it meant something more like family than an acquaintance. South Philly was Catholic. It was proud and superstitious, pragmatic and devout.

The world had changed around South Philly. The jobs that had built it were mostly gone. … Out Joey’s back door, to the east, was… a wasteland, a vast expanse of weedy, trash-piled lots, junkyards, old brick warehouses defaced with graffiti, the discarded remnants of a once thriving port and manufacturing giant. Rusting hulks of old boxcars crouched in forlorn rows… [they were] between the fenced-in lots around the trucking yards and dwindling industrial works along the Delaware River waterfront. (pp. 4-5)

(South Philadelphia is almost as much a star of this story as Joey Coyle).

Hollywood Touches

Bowden includes an excellent followup that completes the tale. (Hollywood eventually got interested & based an unsuccessful John Cusack film on the case). While Bowden tells us what became of Joey after 1986, I wish that he had updated readers on some of the other characters.

The End

So, what would you do with the $1.2 million? Bowden strongly suggests that Joey was never going to get away with it, no matter what he did. But Joey’s story is still terrific.

Finders Keepers reminds you of why you love nonfiction. Novels are great, but real life is better than any fiction. Finders Keepers is short and terrific – find a copy and read it.

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Book Review: The Warriors by Sol Yurick

  • The Warriors
  • by Sol Yurick
  • Publisher – Dell
  • Copyright – 1965
  • 218 pages

Rating - 7.5/10

Review - Way back in 1986, I was in a bind. High school started the next day & I hadn’t read any of the three books that I’d been assigned to read over the summer: Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist, Jesse Stuart’s The Thread that Runs So True, and George Orwell’s 1984. I had to turn in a paper and take a test on each of those three books on Day One. Grimly, I stayed up late to finish in one night what I hadn’t done in three months.

But – I reasoned – you can’t work well unless you’re relaxed. So, I flipped on our TV and surfed through the late-night wasteland while on an extended study break. I ended up watching an old movie about a New York City street gang trying to make its way home to Coney Island after being blamed for a murder at a big rumble.

Waaaaarriors, Come Out and Plaaaaaay! Of course, that movie was the cult classic The Warriors. It wasn’t great art, but it’s stayed with me all of these years. (I’ve seen the film a few times since then). When I saw a dog-eared, water-damaged copy of Sol Yurick’s novel in a thrift store, I bought it.

Hollywood Touches

The first 50 pages or so are consistent with the 1979 movie. On July 4th, gangs from across greater New York City head to Van Cortlandt Park in The Bronx for a meeting. The plan, by a gang leader named Ismael, is to unite the region’s 100,000+ gang members into an army that will rule the streets. Of course, Ismael’s plan doesn’t quite work out. Violence flares and our heroes have to navigate their way back to Coney Island through the mean streets.

From that point forward, the material in the novel won’t be very recognizable to those who’ve seen the movie. Unlike in the film, the gang is known as The Coney Island Dominators (not The Warriors). Also, in the novel the Dominators are not blamed for the violence at the rumble & they are not hunted by the other gangs.

In the film, the violence is cartoonish and it’s easy to root for our heroes to make it home to Coney Island. The gang members in the book are much more flawed people. The book’s Dominators are violent – engaging in murder and gang rape. Moreover, the Dominators are ignorant, functionally illiterates. One of the gang members (who enjoys comic books) is “the reader” for the others, but even he struggles to read a subway map.

A Twisted Quest for Manhood

The teenaged Dominators are in a warped search for manhood and every interaction can be understood by how it affects someone’s perceived manliness. The Dominators are often pathetic in their attempts to prove themselves. In one scene, they pull out their penises to see who is the best endowed, then compete to see who can pee the farthest. It’s not hard to see why much of this material didn’t make it into the film – these guys aren’t that likable.

(Given the graphic violence in the novel, I’m surprised that it was marketed as a “young adult” book. While the novel concerns teenagers, it’s rough stuff).

Nice Prose

Though The Warriors will never rise to the level of Hamlet among literary scholars, it’s well written. According to the ‘net, Yurick based his novel on the ancient works of Xenophon (as well as his experiences working with troubled youths in New York City). He also includes some good, literary touches. For instance, the group’s reader (Junior) continually looks at a comic-book version of an ancient tale of Greek warriors. The material in the book is symbolic of The Dominators’ journey. Consider -

“The Junior had followed the adventure story through the pictures. They had fought every inch of the way; the heroes were on the way home. The heroes were, The Junior could see, the hardest men in a hard world, admirable but, he thought, he wouldn’t like to be in their place, even though he envied their adventures. He sighed, turned back to the beginning as the train went through the echo-y tunnel, and the roaring darkness was getting hotter and hotter” – (p. 135).

There are some drawbacks in Yurick’s presentation. First, The Warriors contains too many indistinct characters for such a short book. It is difficult for the reader to remember which character is which. Also, Yurick didn’t really know how to end the story. The novel’s end is more realistic than is the film’s ending. However, the film – in true Hollywood fashion – ends in a way that wraps everything up & satisfies the viewer.

End of the Rumble

On the first day of high school, I pulled out acceptable grades on my papers and tests. (Thanks Cliff Notes!). The Warriors film stayed in my memory much longer than did any of the books that I had half read.

Both the novel and the movie versions of The Warriors are worth your time. However, you almost have to view them as two separate works. There isn’t that much overlap. (The iconic line “Waaaaarriors, Come Out and Plaaaaaay!” never appears in the book). The film is a fun adventure story. The book asks tougher questions, particularly about violence; for readers, (as for The Coney Island Dominators) there are no easy ways out.

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Book Review: Scumbler by William Wharton

  • Scumbler
  • by William Wharton
  • Publisher – Alfred A. Knopf
  • Copyright 1984
  • 256 pages

Rating - 6.5/10

Review – After decades of obscurity, artist/author William Wharton (a pen name for Albert Du Aime) was riding high in 1984. His previous three novels (Birdy, Dad, and A Midnight Clear) had all been critically acclaimed. (Filmmakers eventually adapted all three for movies).

Wharton’s strength as a novelist is his brutal honesty. I once read that the key to great writing is holding nothing back, “writing as if you were dying.” In Birdy and Dad, Wharton did this and both books are amazing. (I haven’t read A Midnight Clear, though I saw and liked the movie).

With his fourth novel, Scumbler, Wharton manages to “up the ante,” with a story that cuts even closer to the bone. As with much of Wharton’s work, Scumbler is highly autobiographical, focusing on a neurotic, middle-aged American artist who scrapes out a life in Paris.

A Strange Bird – What is this Book?

Scumbler is a bit different, which makes it hard to explain, though the novel tells a coherent story. Scumbler is fifty-something, married with many kids. He is obsessed by death, his failing physical abilities, and the specter of encroaching old age and infirmity. He rides his motorcycle throughout Paris, finding adventure, tilting at windmills.

Scumbler sees himself as “The people’s painter.” He prefers painting outdoors in Paris as crowds mill about and interact with him. Out on the streets he encounters interesting, bohemian characters; many of them are people who refuse to live what Scumbler terms “the automatic life” (p. 41) of the bourgeoisie.

Unfortunately for Scumbler, his art does not pay the bills. He makes additional money by finding unused spaces and converting them into “nests” (illegal apartments), for which he finds tenants. Even with the rent money, Scumbler has little. He must travel on a forged, out-of-date Eurail pass and uses part of the proceeds from selling some paintings for back property taxes that he owes in California.

In the midst of the narrative, Wharton often breaks in with two or three lines of (ALL CAPS) verse that he has composed to make philosophical points. Each page of Scumbler has about one to of these three verses on it. Surprisingly, the verses don’t break the novel’s momentum. Though they vary in quality, many are quite insightful -

THE DIVIDING LINE IS SO FINE, SO
HARD TO SEE, NOT BETWEEN LIFE AND
DEATH; THAT’S EASY; BUT BETWEEN
LIVING AND NOT; THAT’S HARD (P. 121)

Ambivalent Character

For most readers, Scumbler will be a hard guy to figure. Wharton’s not going to give easy answers, and his protagonist comes across as a real, flawed, human being searching for the unattainable.

Wharton’s brutal honesty is apparent in the many occasions when Scumbler admits that he wishes that he were a woman so that he could get pregnant and have babies to nurse at his breasts. I doubt one man in ten thousand would admit to this in print. Still, the lack of restraint gives Wharton’s writing its power.

Other aspects of Scumbler’s character are particularly hard to take. For instance, on a trip (without his family) to Spain, Scumbler “fools around” with a much-younger woman. Given that Scumbler’s wife, Kate, has given up everything to follow his dream and support him, it seems exceptionally selfish. At the end of the novel, Kate confronts Scumbler with his selfishness and its impact on their family.

Predictably, Scumbler saves some special venom for the bourgeoisie. In visiting an art museum, he muses on how an artist must have hated painting royalty’s “stupid-looking little girls” (p. 122); in another passage, he discusses how his neighbors’ stupidity and materialism forced him to sell a property in Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley. Scumbler’s musings on society’s “straights” reveal that – for all his wanderings – he has not found peace.

The End – Scumbler’s Dream House

The worst aspect of the book is the close. It is a chapter-long description of Scumbler’s “dream nest,” with no clear point. Given the novel’s loose plot, perhaps Wharton didn’t know how to end. Still, you leave feeling that you’ve just worked a big jigsaw puzzle only to find that there’s still a hole left and the last piece doesn’t fit it.

The End – of My Review

Scumbler is the fourth Wharton book that I have read. (In addition to Birdy and Dad, I read Shrapnel, Wharton’s excellent, nonfiction account of his World War II experiences). Scumbler is the weakest of the four. I give Wharton credit for originality, but his execution simply wasn’t equal to his ambition. Scumbler’s well worth a look, but it’s a cut below Wharton’s best.

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Book Review: Blood Work by Michael Connelly

  • Blood Work
  • by Michael Connelly
  • Publisher – Little, Brown
  • Copyright 1998
  • 391 pages

Rating - 7/10

Review – A decade or so ago, an out-of-town guest and I watched the Clint Eastwood film Blood Work when we were looking for something to do on the weekend. Having enjoyed the film, I later grabbed the Michael Connelly novel on which it was based. Then the novel just sat for years until I finally got around to reading it.

As usual, it was a big mistake to see the movie first. If you see a movie before reading a mystery, it can be a cardinal sin because the film drains the suspense from the book. As is often the case, Hollywood made many changes when converting the book to a film. While it is fashionable to discuss the stupidity of Hollywood, I think that filmmakers had a good grasp on the novel’s weaknesses in deciding where to make changes.

Characters – McCaleb & Buddy

Michael Connelly is a fine mystery novelist. Prior to reading Blood Work, I had not read one of his novels in about a decade. But I’ve always enjoyed his vivid portraits of contemporary Los Angeles and the multi-faceted characters he creates.

In Blood Work, the star of the show is Terrell McCaleb, a forty-six-year-old ex-FBI agent who was forced into retirement when his heart failed. At the start of Blood Work, McCaleb lives on a boat docked at San Pedro and is recovering from a recent heart transplant. McCaleb’s “next-slip” neighbor is Buddy Lockridge, a harmonica-blowing party animal who helps add color and light touches to the book.

Plot & Problems

There’s a lot to like in Blood Work, but there are also drawbacks. The plot of the novel is intricate and wholly original. Reading it is like peeling back the layers of the onion – just when you think you understand it all, there appears another layer. At the beginning, a woman named Graciela Rivers approaches McCaleb and asks him to help solve her sister’s murder. He refuses, but is drawn into the case when Graciela reveals that it is her sister’s heart that McCaleb received in the transplant.

While Connelly has a gift for creating vivid characters, there are drawbacks to the way he develops McCaleb. In the finest tradition of mysteries, McCaleb is a little too smart. Throughout Blood Work, McCaleb solves mysteries with only the tiniest, most-ambiguous clues. You just don’t believe that it could happen this way.

Another big problem with the book is the ending. The filmmakers seemed to realize this, as the film Blood Work has a very-different ending from the novel. It has been said that the conclusion of a mystery is never as interesting as the mystery itself. This is particularly true of Blood Work.

Post Mortem

Blood Work is still worth a read. It’s not perfect, but it’s consistently entertaining. Once again, I advise enjoying the novel before seeing the movie.

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Book Review: Confederates in the Attic by Tony Horwitz

  • Confederates in the Attic – Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War
  • by Tony Horwitz
  • Publisher – Vintage Departures
  • Copyright 1998
  • 390 pages

Rating - 9/10

Review – To its critics, the United States is a nation with a) little history and b) little appetite for remembering the history that we do have. Tony Horwitz’s Confederates in the Attic suggests that at least the “b” part might not be entirely true. Roughly 20 years ago, he revisited the Civil War’s old battlefields and spoke with many Americans to see why we are still so passionately divided about the war.

Vivid Portraits – People & Places

Perhaps the best thing about the book is that Horwitz can just flat write, introducing readers to colorful people and taking them to memorable places.

One of Horwitz’s best decisions was to examine the Civil War “reenactors” who like to stage mock versions of the old battles. He finds that the Confederacy remains wildly popular; at many reenactments “Rebels” outnumber “Yankees” 2 to 1, though the Yankees almost always had more soldiers during the original battles. Surprisingly, many of the Rebels are not from the states of the old Confederacy.

Perhaps the most-memorable person in the book is “hardcore” reenactor Robert Lee Hodge. “Hardcore” re-enactors try to live as much like Civil War soldiers as is possible. (If you’re not hardcore, you’re a “farb” and prone to “farbing out”). Among Hodge’s “super hardcore” activities are –

  • Eating only foods that were available during the war,
  • Wearing uniforms that are made of the same materials as the originals,
  • Sleeping in fields, while “spooning” with other reenactors,
  • Dieting down to a skeletal weight as Civil War soldiers were poorly fed and marched up to 1000 miles per year. (They weighed – on average – about 135 pounds).
  • And bloating on demand – just like a real corpse – after “dying” in battle.

Hodge is kind of nutty, but the reader likes him anyway.

Horwitz’s portrait of Charleston, South Carolina, – “…the most agreeable piece of urban real estate I’d yet visited in America” (p. 50) – reveals a lot about the “culture war,” while making you want to visit. While in Charleston, Horwitz gets a tour of the city’s famous Battery district, which has many old mansions. His guide tells him that many of the Battery’s residents are from faded, old families, their decrepit mansions falling apart because their owners are “Too poor to paint, too proud to whitewash” (p. 59).

Westerman Case

Horwitz’s basic thesis is that people often see the war through the imperfect lens of the present. Visiting a high school class here in Alabama, Horwitz finds that many students know almost nothing about the war, including in which century it occurred.

Further illustrating Horwitz’s point is the Westerman case from Kentucky. In 1995, 19-year old Michael Westerman was driving with his wife, Hannah, in his pickup truck. Westerman’s truck had a large Rebel flag attached to a pole in the truck’s bed. As Michael and Hannah drove away from a convenience store, four black teenagers chased them and fired shots, killing Michael.

The case set of a firestorm over the meaning of the flag and what should happen to the four teenagers. Horwitz walked into the firestorm, going to Kentucky as the case unwound. As is often the case in Confederates, Horwitz finds that people’s perceptions vary – and are often driven by their emotions. (In one ironic twist, Hannah Westerman (Michael’s widow), says that James didn’t really care that much about the Rebel flag – he flew it because its red color matched the truck).

The opening scene of the Westerman chapter, in which Horwitz journeys into a low-rent bar called Redbone’s is unforgettable. He finds that the bar recently hosted a “Thank God for James Earl Ray” party on Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday. In the end, Horwitz is very lucky to get out of the bar without a severe beating.

Taps

Horwitz shows that the way that we interpret the past reveals as much about us as it does about the past itself. Whatever your view, if you care about the Civil War at all, you will enjoy Horwitz’s account and be left with a lot to ponder.

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Book Review: X-Rated by David McCumber

  • X-Rated – The Mitchell Brothers: A True Story of Sex, Money and Death
  • by David McCumber
  • Publisher – Pinnacle Books
  • Copyright 1996
  • 539 pages

Rating - 6.5/10

Summary - The Mitchell brothers were two California hustlers who came along at just the right moment (the 1960s) to become pornography kingpins. The times and their fun-loving ways made them counterculture heroes. But the good times faded and one brother ended up dead, shot to death by the other. David McCumber recounts their story in the “pretty-good” book, X-Rated.

Review - In 1940s central California, two brothers (Jim and Artie Mitchell) are born into a family of transplanted “Okies”. The Mitchells are a little different; father, J.R, is a professional gambler who makes a nice living playing lowball. Still, the boys do reasonably well in school and don’t seem headed for any particular notoriety.

Enter the 1960s. Searching for their ways in the world, Jim and Artie fall into pornography which booms as society’s mores change. The Mitchells’ panache and love of a good fight leads them to produce the first porn epic (Behind the Green Door) and makes them hippie royalty.

As time passed, the brothers’ paths diverged. Jim was the levelheaded brother who “made the trains run on time.” Artie was the eternal teenager, partying nonstop. Unsurprisingly, tensions arose. In February 1991, Jim went to Artie’s home where he shot and killed Artie. X-Rated traces the Mitchell brothers’ story up to the end of Jim’s criminal trial for the killing.

Big, Rambling Book

Author David McCumber does not use the “just-the-facts” approach favored by many true-crime authors. Rather, his style is both more literary and more partisan. The “literary techniques” bring to mind Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. As was true of Norman’s Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song, X-Rated contains many diversions and, as a result, kills quite many trees. For instance, an entire section details Artie Mitchell’s many, twisted relationships with women. While a bit jarring at first, the segment is excellent; it reveals both Artie’s complex personality and the reasons so many women became involved with him.

Other strong material details Artie’s final days. It’s detailed and graphic, but you can’t stop reading. The sad story of an addict’s end reminded me of the end of Wired, Bob Woodward’s biography of John Belushi.

Clunky Prose

While McCumber (or someone) did a great job of gathering material, his writing is often weak. Simply put, he gets in the way of the story. Rather than simply telling an excellent tale, McCumber wants the reader to know that he’s a hipster who enjoys the Mitchells’ attacks on the bourgeoisie. One of the readers on Amazon.com called McCumber a “wannabe Hunter S. Thompson.” That’s a pretty good way of describing the book’s shortcomings. Like Thompson, McCumber’s feelings about events are central to the story; unlike, Thompson (at his best), McCumber’s views are seldom insightful or interesting.

(To be fair, I cannot fathom the one-star reviews on Amazon. X-Rated is imperfect, but there are enough hooks – “Sex, Money, and Death” as the cover states – to rate at least three stars).

A final criticism is that – after a tedious recount of Jim Mitchells’ trial – the book ends before fully resolving the criminal case and the lawsuits that followed. I can understand why McCumber had to go to press, but readers will have to “Google” the Mitchells to tie up the loose ends.

Merry Pranksters – or Degenerates?

People will have varied reactions to the Mitchells. Some will see them as harmless, life-of-the-party types who lived a stoned version of the American dream. Others will see them as pimps who made money from desperate young women. Your opinion may reveal more about you than it does about Artie and Jim. My feelings are ambivalent. The Mitchells were fun. Reading about Artie’s debauched nights in San Francisco made me want to head for the nearest bar. At the same time, the Mitchells often were ruthless users.

Another disturbing aspect of the story (little explored by McCumber) is how quickly  Artie’s friends forgave Jim once Artie was dead and no longer useful to them. Since many of the friends worked for the Mitchells, it seems that they voted with their wallets when they decided that they didn’t need to be too vocal about demanding “Justice for Artie.”

One Story – Two Books

Back in the 1990s, I read John Hubner’s account of the Mitchell Brothers’ story, Bottom Feeders. Hubner takes a much-dimmer view of the Mitchells.

For almost all readers, one Mitchell Brothers story will suffice. Which one would I recommend? I enjoyed both books, but Bottom Feeders is fuzzy in my memory. For the simple reason that Bottom Feeders is about 100 pages shorter, I’d probably choose it. X-Rated has better material, but it’s weighed down by McCumber’s awkward style and personal statements about the culture wars.

Judged on its own merits, X-Rated is a pretty-good book. You have to wade through some of it, but it’s a memorable, “Only-in-America” story.

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Book Review – Dad by William Wharton

  • Dad
  • by William Wharton
  • Publisher – Avon
  • Copyright 1981
  • 421 pages

Rating - 9/10

Summary - An American artist has chosen to live in France, in large part to escape his parents. However, he must return to southern California to deal with his parents’ failing health. This is the plot of Dad, an amazing, bittersweet, autobiographical novel by William Wharton.

Review - In 1979, William Wharton’s novel Birdy became a sleeper hit – a highly-original novel by a first-time, 53-year-old author. There’s not a lot of direct competition for the story of a shell-shocked World War II soldier who feels that he can communicate with birds. Just as surprising was that Wharton repeated his success with another unique novel – 1981’s Dad. As was true of Birdy, Dad forces the reader to think about our often-heartbreaking lives.

Two Plots in One

“Wherever you go, there you are” has become an accepted bit of folk wisdom. In Dad, artist John Tremont’s new life eventually brings him back to the place – and issues – he had hoped to avoid. Home again in southern California, Tremont and his parents try to confront life’s inevitable failures and frustrations while there is still time.

The above thread takes up most of Dad and would be a sufficient basis for an excellent novel. But Wharton adds something else. In the second thread, John Tremont’s son, Bill, is coming of age and is often at odds with John.

The two father-son interactions suggest that growing older and letting go of our loved ones is a bridge that we all must cross. The “dual plot” works because Wharton shows considerable skill in “cutting” between John Tremont’s interactions with his parents (in southern California) and his interactions with his son (on a car trip across the U.S.).

Growth and Tension

The title Dad can be a little misleading. In truth, the novel deals with John Tremont’s interactions with his entire family, including his wife, children, and sister. At the beginning of the novel, Tremont’s parents both suffer health problems in quick succession.

As the plot develops, it becomes apparent that Tremont’s mother is a difficult person. As her health declines, Tremont’s father becomes more independent and – at his son’s urging – begins to grow in unexpected ways. Of course, this causes friction in the parents’ marriage.

Criticisms

While Dad is excellent, some aspects of “Dad’s” journey aren’t 100% believable. As he awakens to the world’s possibilities, he tries a number of new activities. A couple of plot twists that didn’t “ring true” for me involved Dad’s desire to ride on John’s motorcycle and – even less believably – a scene in which Dad ends up smoking pot with some bohemians.

Also, Dad contains an unflattering portrait of Tremont’s mother. While you learn the reasons behind her controlling behavior, you still don’t like her. At times, you feel as though she serves only to antagonize the other characters, that she isn’t a fully-realized character.

Last, whether it was Wharton’s intention or not, John Tremont is something of an elitist. He shares the snob’s disdain for America as a cultural wasteland, relative to Europe. Perhaps Wharton hoped to reveal some of Tremont motivation for leaving the U.S.; or perhaps Wharton wanted to depicting Tremont as a real, flawed person.

Summary

Our media depicts a society of young, healthy, wealthy, and happy people. A look at the “real world” shows us that – for better or worse – there’s much more to life than that. Dad forces us to ponder conflict, decline, and death. It’s not the fantasy that typically sells beer, cars, and cosmetics.

Surprisingly, Wharton forces us to look, but makes it worth our while. Dad is often bittersweet, but it is “holds” the reader because it relates to “the human condition” that we all share. You will not go away unmoved. I recommend it.

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