A young man reckons with his father’s sudden death through writing (and rewriting) fact and fiction.
When Polanzak was 17, his father literally exploded on the tennis court, vanishing in a wisp of white smoke, or so readers are told in the first chapter of Polanzak’s debut. They soon learn that this story is fiction—sort of. Subsequent chapters retell the event, adding layers of recollection, fabrication, and, ultimately, meaning. The narrative extends over a period of one week, 10 years after Polanzak’s father’s death, during which his mother asks him to speak at a bereavement group. However, he can’t imagine portraying his grief with sincerity or veracity—the central struggle of the book. This credible plot thread is, however, knotted with chapters of memoir, fiction, dream sequences, and pure rants—all attempts to tell the overall story and make sense of a senseless death. In the memoir sections, readers see Polanzak’s life divided into two different eras: before and after. They meet his father, mother, brother, and friends, and they watch his father teach him to play tennis and are invited into his teenage hangout over the household garage and, later, to his father’s grave. They also watch Polanzak become a writer and editor, trying for years to write about his parent’s demise. Fictional chapters include some of his attempts: “Milo” Polanzak discovers his dead doctor-father’s vast collection of literature and a single poem; “Martin” Polanzak’s father dies, and the family, having just remodeled the house, can find no way to remove a pink toilet from the lawn. These stories are highlights of the book, not because Polanzak’s prose is at its best—in fact, he’s quick, within the text, to critique such nascent work—but because they so vividly depict his grappling with incomprehensible loss. As he turns events over, he examines angles and slants, reality and artifice. If he edges toward self-indulgence, it seems warranted, even necessary: “What you write becomes all you’ve got,” he says. Clearly an inveterate writer, Polanzak continues until something clicks or, as he might quip, something pops.
A one-of-a-kind story of grief that’s likely to have very broad appeal.