- 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.
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.
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.