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Book Review : Father-Son Tale Without the Principles

Times Book Critic

Watching the Body Burn by Thomas Glynn (Alfred A. Knopf; $18.95; 301 pages)

Like the fisherman, the writer snags his catch out of a flowing element, now clear and now murky, but resembling the shining quarry not at all.

Of the writer, though, we require something more than catching the fish. We need to know what is to be done with it. Is it to cook, to release, to mount and display, or to sneak inside someone’s pillow? The writer should sense, in some fashion, why he is pulling the fish out, and let us sense it as well.

Thomas Glynn’s novel of a son recalling his father seems to be starved of this sense. There is some elegant and, at times, beautiful writing. But we lack a father and a son.

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Pain and Resentment

The father, apart from a biography of eccentric dilapidation, doesn’t exist as a character who lives or has lived. He exists as the son’s pain, resentment and thwarted love. He approaches and recedes with the son’s searching and distancing. And apart from a splendid section about boyhood friends and expeditions, the son barely exists, except as a consciousness exercising a memory.

Even more than the first-person fictional memoir, the literary search for a mother or a father risks a kind of ultimate narcissism. The child’s identity disappears into the parent’s. And the parent, evoked to feed the child’s need for acknowledgement, reconciliation or revenge, has no identity to begin with. Nobody is at home.

The father in this book is a doctor who is a lapsed Catholic and an alcoholic, and incapable of holding down a position. He is a would-be writer and tinkerer, a man of sporadic grandiose visions and pronouncements, and utter unreliability. The narrator’s early memories of him are vivid but without foundation or continuity.

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When the boy is older, the mother and father separate, and the latter wanders erratically from job to job around the country, turning up occasionally and finally, in helpless old age, spending his last days at a sister’s house. He dies in a fire set by a dropped cigarette.

Part of Glynn’s narrative is written in the straightforward fashion of a memoir. At times, the memories come, as childhood memories can do, in a kind of dream-like fragmentation. At other times, the writing goes into a surreal, expressionist overdrive.

There is, at the beginning and the end, the image of the old man in a sheet of flame and later, wasting away in the hospital. There is an image of the father and another man on a golf course, methodically slicing strips of flesh off each other with their clubs. There is an image of the boy’s uncles dumping tons of baking soda on a lawn, and then joining in a slow dance.

There is a recurring use of air images. The father speculates that people are simply machines that run on air, and that disease “is stagnant air where fresh should be.” He is gripped by a fear that he is evaporating into the air, a representation, perhaps, of his instability. Contaminated by the image, the boy collects bottles--possibly, small air reserves.

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This kind of thing tends to stand unattached. It is a dream passage that may suggest less to the reader than to the writer.

In the sections recalling the narrator’s fights, games, arguments and rambles with his boyhood friends, the touches of hallucination can be more effective. Glynn is at his best, in fact, in suggesting the removed world of boyhood, and the unease and alarm that can suddenly invade a child’s pursuits and speculations.

There is a splendid battle between the narrator’s gang and a stronger gang on a nearby block. The other block smells strange, like socks or lasagna. The power of a smell to disquiet or reassure is peculiar to childhood, and Glynn suggests it powerfully.

The fight oscillates between the prosaic and the mythical. At one point, one member of the rival gangs jumps from a rooftop onto a pile of mattresses he has thrown down beforehand. “I felt that I was in the presence of an authentic hero,” the narrator says. “He had a sense of sadness and resignation as if he had no control over his heroism.” The evocative tone is reminiscent of Alain-Fournier’s adolescent classic, “The Wanderer.”

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In another passage, one of the boys, after witnessing a minor car accident, is triggered into a wild paroxysm of death-seeking. He runs from the police station to a funeral home to a hospital in a vain attempt to be allowed to see a corpse; finally, he nails himself to a fence. The extra-real vision works remarkably well in suggesting how a child’s erratically growing consciousness can be swamped suddenly by a tidal wave of futurity.

Realistic and surreal by turns, the book founders on the inert character of the father-son quest. The style and stylishness adorn a bare grievance.

Late in the book, for example, the narrator, now grown, recalls his father returning unexpectedly when he is not at home, and leaving a note on his apartment door. “Quietly descending the staircase, the boy’s father hoped that the note would make the boy feel guilty,” he tells us.

This is not a real person tiptoeing down the stairs. It is the narrator’s resentment, self-pity and self-abdication. Even his name is self-abdicating. He gives himself no name; at 50, he is only “the boy.”

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There is no real father without a real son.


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