Morris Dickstein wrote (in Harper's) of Jonathan Baumbach's previous novel that it "beautifully explores the relationship between what we image and who we are." My Father More or Less, which deals with the confrontation between an aggrieved 18 year old boy and his estranged novelist-turned-screenwriter father, is a continuing exploration of the fiction making capacities of the imagination.
I had a dream the night before last in which I had already made the trip to London and had unwittingly got into a fight with my father at Customs. We had both bought souvenir penknives from an airport shop and as a joke, as what I thought was a joke, were slicing the buttons off each other's jackets. He gets angry for no apparent reason - I had done nothing he hadn't done first - and he says, Tom, I'm going to teach you a lesson you'll remember for as long as you live. I say I'm sorry, but he jabs me with the knife, ripping a fist-size hole in the side of my jacket. The knife withdraws with a rosebud of blood at its point. You've gone too far, I say, astonished at the blood. He shuffles around, taunting me with the knife, saying, Come on, come on, let's see what you're made of. Although I am angry, I mean only to defend myself, not to strike back. When he thrusts his knife at my heart - it's as if he really means to kill me - I spear him in the back of the hand, the blade sticking, snapping off at the handle. It seems not to bother him and he comes at me again, slashing the air, pricking me in the thumb, the blade of my knife lodged like a wing in the back of his hand. You shit-faced son of a bitch, he yells. He thrusts are without force, are easily defended against. At some point I notice that the front of his shirt is thick with blood. I think, How will I get back to America if the old man dies.
I keep making this trip to London in my imagination, the same trip to visit my father, sit each time at a window seat in the No Smoking section of a Pan Am 747, the plane taxiing down a runway, changing direction, stopping and starting, trapped in indecision. There is almost always an unspecified delay that prolongs itself beyond my patience. And then without further announcement, just when I think we'll never go anywhere, we tear loose from the earth. The plane ascends with heartbreaking abruptness, Kennedy Airport reducing itself to abstraction in the distance below. I am on my way, though unready for the trip, without expectation of what awaits me on the other side.
I have a copy of one of my father's novels on my lap a book called Interior Corrosions, which I will make an effort to read. Oddly, I have never been able to read any of his books word for word from the beginning to end, though I have tried - give me that - had pretended to read them, had carried them with me when I was younger as thought they were medals earned in battle. I had never given up the idea of some day reading his books as I had never really fully given up the idea that he would one day return to our family. He left us with I was four and Kate seven, returned inexplicably when I was five and left for good two days after my sixth birthday. Since he had left forever once and returned, I saw no reason why it couldn't happen again. My mother certainly acted as if she expected him to return, talked of his absence as if he had gone to the supermarket and forgotten the way back. I assumed that he would eventually tire of whatever he was doing (I thought of him as being like Mastroianni in La Dolce Vita) and return to us, his faithful family. As much as five years after he had walked out, his bed, still talked of as his, remained alongside my mother's awaiting his momentary return. We are still waiting, thought with smaller investment of hope than before. He has been gone twelve years, has lived in a different state for most of five and in a different country for the past two.
I mean, it was not that we never saw him after he left. It was that there was no longer any pleasure in his presence for us, that he visited seasonally like a salesman, selling his time at inflated prices. He seemed like an imposter, this visitor from another planet, this salesman of damaged goods, an inadequate stand-in for the father we had lost. I mean, he went through the motions of being our father, tried to buy us with unexpected kindnesses. Nothing we got from him lasting or satisfying, we became tougher and tougher customers, my sister and I. Kate got married when she was twenty and moved to Colorado, got divorced the following year but stayed on among the vanished bison. She would not talk to him again, she said, unless he called to apologize for twenty-one years of damage he had done to her.
my father, more or less
my father, more or less