Memoir — From the June 2016 issue

The Old Man

A writer remembers his father

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In America, being serious is often seen as being aloof, my old man said, once, years ago, when he was talking about his father, my Grandpa Means, who was quiet most of the time, reticent in a Midwestern way, or so I thought, think. The old man was sitting on the dock, holding the cork handle of an old fishing rod, raising the tip high to test the line from time to time, smoking his pipe and looking out at the red-and-white plastic bobber in the water, which was thin and glazed with a cruel, late-day sunlight. He was rambling to me — I was home from college, drinking a beer — in his lecture mode, his voice theoretical-sounding, and making, from time to time, his usual so ons and so forths, and he went on to talk about how easy it was, in the Midwest, for people to take your seriousness for snobbishness. I remember those words, exactly. He drove his point home by giving an example of a man he knew at the paper mill, who began to read the great books, Shakespeare, Dante, to make a study of the classics, turning again and again to Dickens, and then back to Shakespeare, going off to work — the roar of the presses and pulp separators and the men on the window ledges eating their lunches (I remember, the old man described all this). This friend of my father’s kept this new knowledge to himself as much as he could, joshing with his buddies in the same way, in survival mode because all the men at the mill had to find a way to negotiate the noise and the stench and the tedium of the tasks, not as bad as the tedium of the line at Fisher Body, where they made car bodies, or at Checker cab, but close. Then one day during lunch — my father took a puff on his pipe, a Dr. Grabow, I’m sure, with the paper filter inside — this guy had let something slip, a reference to Hamlet, or perhaps, in response to something another guy said about his elderly father-in-law, to Lear — and from that point on this guy was tagged as a snob, as standoffish, and was eventually forced to quit and begin working a dock job down in Toledo.

Illustrations by Jen Renninger. Source photograph of the author’s father courtesy the author

Illustrations by Jen Renninger. Source photograph of the author’s father courtesy the author

I don’t remember the rest of that story, but I do remember that my old man opened another can of beer and then grew silent while the sun set across the lake. He sat there perfectly still and with sad silence, and I now see that the way I was thinking about it at the time, which had to do with filtering my image of him through the sense that he was a sad professor, that he had somehow grown weary not only of teaching but of processing so much knowledge, just a fragment of what was out there, while having to present himself to the world as a full-blown know-it-all; the way I saw him then was probably totally wrong. When he was alive I saw him and focused my thoughts on his years of dedication to professing, to teaching, to his scholarly endeavors, and I thought of the time-stillness of the classroom, the cycling in and out of students who remained the same age, with the same youthful inclinations, while he, for his part, went from a whip-smart standout at Cornell to a threadbare but beloved member of the sociology department at a small Midwestern college. (It wasn’t that simple. He began as a minister, a chaplain at Cornell, where he went on to get his Ph.D., and when he retired from professing he went back to preaching, as an interim minister at various churches around southwestern Michigan.)

His sorrow at that moment on the dock — or whatever was inside that silence — came from his inability to in some authentic way be both the professorial type and the rough, solid, hard-boned type of man who would never be mistaken for some kind of snob by other tough men, just as I, as a writer, felt sometimes — and got quiet and sad in the same way — the paradox that came from the subjects that I loved to write about, to imagine my way into, the lonely sad men and women who have been eaten alive by this country, one way or another, or betrayed by the circumstances of their lives, being so different from me, now. This silence, this sorrow that comes from not being someone else, is what you hear, I now think, when you read, or rather when you listen to, the music that David Foster Wallace’s later stories create, a sorrowful lament at feeling fundamentally fraudulent in an age that is holding you up, one way or another, to the deepest scrutiny, testing you for authenticity. It’s not a sound you hear in the work of Saul Bellow, who wrote in a time when the line between real and imagined wasn’t held to such a brutal standard. Bellow was a man who could wear a hat and move around the world with purposeful brilliance, unafraid of being seen as fraudulent.

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is the author of four story collections and the novel Hystopia, published in April by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. His story “The Mighty Shannon” appeared in the February 2014 issue of Harper’s Magazine.

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