HIS SON: A Child of the Fifties by Bill Henderson

HIS SON: A Child of the Fifties

Email this review


When Bill Henderson's father died in 1965, he was disturbed by a funeral that had nothing to do with his Pop's personality; and he was puzzled to find, in old letters, no trace of the Pop he knew. So: ""I'd have to search for Pop in my memories."" And this small, not-quite-focused memoir consists of Bill's recollections of New Jersey childhood and adolescence--which are intriguing when they center on G.E. engineer Pop, less so when they deal with Bill's more everyday teenage traumas (acne, masturbation, etc.). ""To Pop, sin was real. Sin was the reason for everything terrible. Heaven and hell were actual places. Jesus and God were people who lived with us, not just pleasant suburban abstractions."" So Bill grew up with a real sense of being good--which included signing a ""Family Covenant"" card pledging total abstinence from drinking. But the outside world soon presented a different picture: ""In the Boy Scouts I learned how to lie."" And Bill became confused about who his heroes should be: ambitious tough guys (""oaks"") or gentle Pop (""a silver maple""). When one philosophical approach failed, he'd swing back and try the other one again: there was his ""power"" search, his ""truth"" search, his Kerouac period--each of which had to be reconciled with guilt about masturbation and teenage sex. And by the time Bill went off to Hamilton College, he was pursuing ""life"" to the hilt--with booze and Jewish girlfriends--but still, finally, able to reconcile it all with Pop's ""gentleness, his caring, the possibility of something sacred. . . . This was all I needed to know about my hidden father."" A rather sappy, fuzzy conclusion; and, throughout, Henderson's vignette-and-musing approach verges on the precious. But Pop is an intriguing figure (we don't ever learn enough about him), most of the narration is leanly specific, and--though far too idiosyncratic to be the sociological document promised by that misleading, damaging subtitle--this is an engaging, occasionally affecting meditation on father/son love, on the fitful quest for a philosophy-of-life.

Pub Date: March 16th, 1981
Publisher: Norton