A father’s absence looms large in his son’s life.
Waters (Fiction Writing/Lewis & Clark Coll.; The Saints of Rattlesnake Mountain: Stories, 2017, etc.) makes his nonfiction debut with a frank, earnest memoir about his search for a father. Because he had no contact with his father growing up, the author felt bereft of the love and guidance that he envied in other father-son relationships. Being fatherless obsessed him: “Any man whose father leaves can understand the shame, confusion, and anger generated by such a primal loss.” Although he was hungry for answers about why his father left and stayed away, when his father unexpectedly sent him a brief autobiography, it took Waters years to finally read it because he was “frightened by what the pages might say about him or about me.” Surprised to discover that his father had been a surfer—a sport Waters himself loved—he decided to write a magazine article about surfing, imagining that researching and writing “could lead to something deeper, something important, and something curative.” The author’s need for healing led him to several failed attempts to write a memoir and also to undergo therapy for more than a decade, which he recounts in some verbatim conversations. When he suggested to his therapist that he should stop dwelling on his father and give up the memoir project, she dissuaded him. Unfortunately, writing as therapy may be more successful for the author than readers, who are confronted with too many assorted details and digressions: memories of various father figures, frustration about his writing, reflections on his relationship with his wife, their attempts to have a baby, his doubts about his own capacity to be a father, and a parallel story about another Don Waters, a sailor and writer born in the late 1800s whose family life provides a useful reality check on the author’s own illusions. “It’s a great example,” he tells his therapist, “that no matter how someone’s life looks from the outside, no one’s life is ever perfect.”
A sincere but flawed recounting of a search for self-knowledge.