'My Father's Bonus March' by Adam Langer

My Father's

Bonus March

Adam Langer

Spiegel & Grau: 244 pp., $26

In June 1932, at the height of the Great Depression, a ragtag collection of World War I veterans converged on Washington, D.C., to demand money the government had promised them. About 20,000 men set up impromptu encampments around the capital, intent on serving as physical reminders of a broken promise.

The government's patience did not last -- perhaps because it couldn't pay restitution. On July 28, Gen. Douglas MacArthur, acting on President Hoover's orders, sent his troops to roust the veterans, a case of the Army acting against its own. The skirmishes cleaned out the camps, but not before a handful of men were killed.

Adam Langer heard about the Bonus March, as the protests were called, for much of his life. His father, Seymour, a Chicago radiologist, often talked about the futile effort of the Army men, even musing that he would like to write about it in a book.

When Seymour Langer died in 2005 at 80, he hadn't finished -- or really begun -- his project. To his son, a novelist ("Crossing California," "Ellington Boulevard"), this was a tragedy. The younger Langer had even entertained fantasies of accompanying his father on research trips and helping with the manuscript. "The book he never wrote," he explains in "My Father's Bonus March," his first work of nonfiction, "is the story of what we didn't do together, of the conversations we didn't have, of the projects we didn't finish, of the stories he left out, of the inner life, about which I knew so little, of what our relationship could have been but wasn't."

"My Father's Bonus March" recounts Langer's quest to discover the source of his father's fascination, as well as his attempt to understand their distant filial dynamic, which was marked by quips and retorts rather than real communication. "It was a typical relationship between a Depression-era father and son," he writes. "My Dad and I shook hands; we didn't hug. Love was not a word in our vocabulary."

Libraries are filled with memoirs of sons and daughters uncovering family secrets. At their best, such books reveal hidden history and a complex family dynamic. Here, though, the connections are too tenuous: No one in the Langer family served in World War I, nor did they march on Washington. So what was so compelling to Langer's father? To find out, Langer visits archives and libraries and his father's old Jewish neighborhood in Chicago. He interviews prominent Americans such as John Kerry and Norman Podhoretz about their perception of the march.

That's all fine, of course, but it never brings the relationship between Langer and his father into focus, nor gives us a sense of Langer's father as he really was. "I never knew he had a literary bent," remarks Seymour Levine, a family friend. "He never mentioned it. Marlene, did you ever hear anything about Seymour wanting to write a book?"

In some memoirs, the quest becomes a central feature of the narrative, but the journey here is so unrevealing that Langer resorts to weaving snippets of conversations with his father's friends and relatives into play-like dialogue. These sections feel stilted and call attention to the fact that the book is a hodgepodge of genres -- memoir, biography, history, documentary -- that do not cohere into a satisfying whole.

"My Father's Bonus March" is most vivid when Langer recounts episodes from his own life, such as the time his family got trapped at the home of relatives when a rainstorm made the streets impassable. Just as the family settled in for the night, the rain relented. His father insisted on driving home, and the picture that emerges is of a resolute family man, in charge and in command.

In another touching scene, Langer describes sitting on a stoop in Chicago with his 2-year-old daughter, Nora, and telling her stories about the neighborhood. He broods that he never had this kind of exchange with his father -- an insight that tells more about Seymour than the multitude of interviews in the book.

In the end, Langer realizes that his father was an ordinary man and not a thwarted author. But that revelation does not mean that his life was a failure. He made his mark by being a successful radiologist, a loving friend and a provider for his family. For Seymour Langer, it ends up being enough.

Dinkelspiel is the author of "Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman Created California."