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'Assisted Loving' by Bob Morris

Special to The Times

June 3, 2008

Would you look at this book jacket? What was HarperCollins thinking? An old guy, with a comb-over and a gut, sitting on a chaise at the beach -- legs spread wide in his too-tight Burberry swim trunks -- skin like leather, gold chains at his neck and wrists, his mouth full of sandwich, this is supposed to be funny? Because, what, the real story isn't funny enough? Does the publisher want to pretend Bob Morris hasn't written a beautiful book? They're going to sell more copies if they insinuate vulgarity between the covers? That must be it. Because nobody in "Assisted Loving" remotely resembles this guy on the cover, certainly neither Joe Morris nor his son Bob, best known for his defunct column in the New York Times, the Age of Dissonance, in which he was arbiter and aficionado of good taste and style; the final piece, dated last November, was a paean to the thank-you card as one of "life's grace notes" and an expression of civility.

In his warm, occasionally silly, deeply honest tribute to his father -- to his whole family, in fact -- Bob Morris alternates chapters about their love lives, his and his father's, to hilarious and touching effect. The story begins shortly after the 2002 death of his mother and just a few months before Joe's 80th birthday, when sons Jeff and Bob decide to throw him a party. The "boys" are uncomfortable, not to say offended, by Joe's obvious crush on Edie, his date for the evening. Isn't it too early for Dad to be thinking about romance? But not too long afterward, Joe -- in earnest about finding a partner -- starts circling ads in the personals. Because he doesn't have a land line and can't get through to the 900 exchange with his cellphone, he enlists Bob to make the follow-up calls.

Joe's a catch: secure, solvent, well-preserved with a full head of hair, ready at a moment's notice with a joke or a song. On the minus side, he lives in Great Neck and he's a slob. Talks too much on his cell. Doesn't get enough exercise and tends to dribble all over the front of his shirts when he eats. Bob, meanwhile, lives in Manhattan and hankers after life in the Hamptons. Early on he explains, "My column in the paper often lampoons the pretty and privileged there, the ones . . . who look right through me and my oh-so-lackluster pedigree. They aren't nice people, they shouldn't be important to me, and yet I gravitate toward these types. . . . I wasn't cool in high school. It's alarming to think I'm still trying to make up for it now."

Bob's gay -- a man who falls in love with the wrong guy every time. He's hyper-critical, a perfectionist about all things aesthetic, but endearingly self-aware. "I have more opinions than anyone I know," he admits, unable not to take aim at his father's taste in women. Joe, on the other hand, is as accepting as Bob is not. When Bob was 19, Joe let him know, unsolicited, that his life choices were OK by him. "You[r] mother and I love you no matter what," he said. It's never mattered one bit to Joe who Bobby brought home, so long as Bobby was happy. But Bob is pickier, more discriminating: If his dad must date, not just anybody will do.

It all comes to a head with "Fifth Avenue Florence," a seventysomething hand-picked for Joe by Bob; a woman of means, beautifully accessorized, who -- no surprise -- makes Joe completely uncomfortable. Less than a week before New Year's Eve, Bob joins Joe and Florence for an awkward dinner in a swank restaurant. By dessert it's clear: Bob wants to "nudge [Joe] under the table, tell him, Let her go, Dad. I was wrong. She's no good for you. You have to want who wants you, who gets you, revels in you. But who am I to give anyone advice about love?" Afterward Bob and Joe go back to Joe's place and get drunk on a sticky bottle of Manischewitz already mixed with vodka ("a little experiment," Joe calls it). They wallow and commiserate, two single guys, each of them without a date for New Year's Eve. Incredibly, at this point Bob's memoir becomes a page-turner: Will either man discover true love? Is there any such thing? "You have to stop looking for perfection, Bobby," advises his father. "That's the only way you'll find it."

But it's the journey, not the destination, so the saying goes, and in pursuit of romance, this father and son get a second chance at finding each other; theirs is the resounding love affair at the center of the book.

Meanwhile, on the last page, the sweetest photo of Joe and Bob, courtesy of the author. Middle-aged and long-married (to a Connecticut WASP), I'd date either of them. Heck, I'd date both at the same time. So Harper, take note, trust your own good taste, scrap this cover for the real thing when the paperback comes along. And by way of good manners, let me thank you, Bob Morris, for your heartfelt contribution to the canon of father-son memoir; an expression of civility, a grace note unto itself.

Dinah Lenney is the author of "Bigger Than Life: A Murder, a Memoir."

Assisted Loving True Tales of Double Dating With My Dad Bob Morris Harper: 288 pp., $24.95

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