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5 Moving Portraits About Dads With a Dark Side

Some of the best books about fathers simply tell the complicated truth

“They fuck you up, your mum and dad,” wrote Philip Larkin, the British poet famous for seeing the glass half empty. Yet Larkin wasn’t one to whine. His widely quoted poem treats parents with sympathy (“they were fucked up in their turn”) while steering clear of sentimentality.

The same goes for the best books about fathers: Their authors aren’t out to settle scores or to wax nostalgic, but simply to tell the complicated truth. Here are some of my favorites — five moving portraits of dads with a dark side.

"The Duke of Deception," by Geoffrey Wolff. If Keith Richards is the definitive bad boy of rock & roll, Arthur Samuels Wolff — known as "Duke" — was the quintessential bad dad. His résumé is impressive: first Groton, then Yale, followed by World War II action with the OSS and alongside the French Resistance. Just one catch — none of it is true. “My father was a bullshit artist,” writes Geoffrey Wolff, whose first response to the news of Duke’s death was a spontaneous sigh of relief (“Thank God”). Still, this is no "Daddy Dearest" tell-all. What makes it one of the great memoirs (along with "This Boy’s Life," by Tobias Wolff, Geoffrey’s brother) is the author’s wit and honesty as he chronicles, with “no want of astonishment and love,” the life of a con man who was nonetheless a caring and attentive father.

"Maus," by Art Spiegelman. To the publishers who rejected it, a two-volume comic book about the Holocaust sounded unthinkable, and it’s certainly not anything you’d expect. "Maus" tells the story of Vladek Spiegelman, a cranky retiree who bickers with his wife and gets on his son’s nerves. But the author's on a mission: to record his father’s history, from prewar Poland to the death camp at Auschwitz and beyond. Following a cartoon convention, the characters appear as animals — Jews as mice, Germans as cats — yet Vladek’s humanity comes through as vividly as the inhumanity of a bleak time.

"Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic," by Alison Bechdel. This is graphic nonfiction in both senses of the word. There’s a chilling scene in which a preadolescent Alison walks into a room where her father, the director of a funeral parlor (his kids call it “the fun home”), is embalming a naked male cadaver, its chest split wide open. Impassively, he asks her to hand him a pair of scissors. “It felt like a test,” recalls Alison, who mirrors her father’s detachment, thereby passing the exam. Behind this lack of affect lies a secret: Dad is gay. But then so is Alison, and even if she can’t fully crack the mystery of her cold and remote father, she later recognizes how he gave her, at a critical point in her coming of age, the understanding and support he’d never had.

"Rabbit at Rest," by John Updike. Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, the antihero of Updike’s four-novel series, is a careless father whose son, Nelson, seems like a bit player in his life. That’s because Harry, a suburban Pennsylvania everyman, always wants to be elsewhere. He abandons his family in the first novel, but returns in the second, only to step out again as his home literally goes up in flames. By "Rabbit at Rest," the fourth and best Rabbit book, Harry is settled in Florida (“death’s favorite state”) and slowing down, though that doesn’t deter him from having sex with Nelson’s wife shortly before Father’s Day (no one sends Harry a card). Even so, the father-son bond remains as Nelson, after Harry’s final heart attack, screams, “Don’t die, Dad. Don’t!” Which provokes his father’s unexpectedly serene last words: “Well, Nelson, all I can tell you is, it isn’t so bad.”

"Experience," by Martin Amis. Kingsley Amis, Martin’s celebrated father, began his own literary career as one of Britain’s leftist “angry young men” of the 1950s. By the time Martin joined the family business, however, Kingsley’s rage had new targets. A heavy boozer and surly reactionary, he dismissed his son’s novels (even "London Fields," which was dedicated to Kingsley) as “too much like hard work.” Yet Martin describes him with unqualified affection. Most memorable scene: Kingsley, recently knighted by Queen Elizabeth, arrives at his son’s front door, where he’s greeted by Martin’s sons, ages four and five, wearing plastic breastplates and Viking horns. With great effort, Kingsley slowly descends to one knee. The boys silently touch a plastic sword to either shoulder.

The moment seems to confirm two lines in another poem by Larkin (Kingsley’s best friend), which notes, “Our almost-instinct almost true: What will survive of us is love.”

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