Although Father's Day normally inspires little of the Hallmarkian gush we associate with Mother's Day, this year's event seems to have sired an outpouring of books about fathers.
All of the books have one thing in common: a male author. Does no man have a daughter moved to write a book about Dear Old Dad?Ah, well. Daughters (and sons) without inspiration to write a book for dad might consider buying him one for next Sunday. Here are some of the choices.
- The best of the bunch is clearly Calvin Trillin's "Messages From My Father" (117 pages, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $18). It's also the shortest, which shows how a professional like Trillin - he writes for The New Yorker - can make a point with gratifying brevity.
Basically, his book recounts with warmth and affection, if sometimes with puzzlement, the life of his father, who arrived in America as a toddler from a Jewish village in Russia and somehow became a classic Midwesterner - a hard-working, stubborn and taciturn man given to charming eccentricities.
On trips to Miami, Trillin recalls, "my father sometimes went to the beach with his old 16 millimeter movie camera and took a reel or two that consisted entirely of fat women approaching the ocean."
Young Trillin moved on from Kansas City to Yale and then to New York. As he matured, he found, to his astonishment, that he was a lot like his father. "I think I've accepted my father's messages," he writes, "with just a little editing here and there."
Trillin's father died in 1967, but he has a pair of daughters. His book is the nicest Father's Day gift he could give them.
- As proof against judging a book by its cover - hippie title, dippy art - consider Steven Lewis' "Zen and the Art of Fatherhood" (253 pages, Dutton, $19.95). Yes, Lewis is an aging flower child (complete with long hair and a Volkswagen bus). But he's also the father of seven, and he shares some whimsical insights in this volume of brief, warm and easy-to-read essays.
Be warned: Much of the text, especially in the early years of the children's lives, focuses on sex and other bodily functions. I found it funny - especially the essay about the day his 2-year-old discovered the toilets in the plumbing department at a Sears in Milwaukee - but others may turn up their noses.
Most of his essays contain a chuckle or two; if he comes up short here and there, he is at least mercifully brief. Mostly, he ponders the experience of fatherhood with irony, bemusement and an occasional sense of awe at having been entrusted by God with seven wonderful gifts.
- In "My Father's War" (261 pages, Simon & Schuster), journalist Peter Richmond sets off to follow the World War II trail of his father - a Marine officer who survived Guadalcanal, New Britain and Peleliu only to perish as a middle-aged businessman in a plane crash in 1960.
When Richmond sticks to writing about his father and about the Pacific islands, his skill as a keen reporter shines. When he meanders off into father-son psychology and coming-to-grips-with-mortality stuff, the reader's eyes may grow dull.
His best writing arises from his strolls across the battlefields of half a century ago. There's some poignancy in learning that Peleliu, where the 1st Marine Division tore itself to shreds, now grows the world's most potent marijuana.
- Misery abounds in C. Stephen Fouquet's "Divorced Dads" (218 pages, Fairview Press, $19.95). It's an oral history of marital unhappiness, as related by a cast of men that includes a convict, a minister and a couple of AIDS victims. (Oddly, a majority seem to have been married more than once. One four-time veteran is, of all things, a family counselor.)
Most of the men harbor grudges against their ex-wives - hearing their side of these stories would be interesting - and deep regret that divorce unplugged their children from their lives.
This is an ultimately unhappy book, and only an ex-wife of the sort featured in its pages would even think of buying it as Father's Day present.
- I've never read anything by Robert Fulgham, so I can't say whether son Hunter S. Fulgham lives up to the title of his "Like Father, Like Son" (273 pages, Putnam, $21.95). All I can say is that the younger Fulgham is a '90s kind of father, a Seattle yuppie who frets that his kids may play with toy guns.
If that's your kind of father, these are your kind of essays. I knew they weren't my kind when I got to the part where Fulgham's wife goes into labor with the second of their two children:
"We had been watching `Tampopo,' a Japanese movie, and based on our last delivery, we sat down to finish the film, breathing together through the contractions until the movie finished and my in-laws arrived to watch over Sarah. We even rewound the tape, and returned it to the rental shop's drop box, so as not to get a late charge, then stopped to get a latte (decaf, of course) before we headed for the hospital."
This whole book is decaf. Of course.
- Four years' worth of correspondence went into "Letters From Dad" (304 pages, Warner, $14.95). Dad is John Broome, a wealthy California Tory, and his letters are to his son in prep school.
They teem with platitude, rectitude and certitude. Not since Polonius has someone so burdened a son with advice. Imagine yourself as a teenager, getting a paternal letter that begins, "Dear Jack: Let's talk about decisiveness, aggressiveness and focus." No, let's drop the letter in the wastebasket.
Yes, I too once wrote my GI son occasional letters like these, usually while on the downhill side of a six-pack. After reading this book, I can only pray that the kid burned them.
(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service.)