A proud father’s decline and fall, as thoughtfully narrated by a long-distanced son.
Ted Wertime was many things: an accomplished scholar of ancient technologies, a traveler and bon vivant, and a spy. Although he never made clear to his children what it was, exactly, that he did, he bragged to them that he outranked generals and enjoyed the confidence of presidents, political columnists, and world leaders. Certain of his worldview, he issued pronouncements on current events in the place of dinner-table conversation: “Though Chinese civilization is ancient,” he once declared, “cruelty means absolutely nothing in China; human life is worthless. They shit in the streets there.” Ted’s awed children, Richard Wertime (English/Beaver Coll.) writes, grew up with little connection but blood to their powerful father, drifting into the counterculture and failing to meet his expectations at every turn. It was only on the senior Wertime’s retirement from government service that the author, by then a professor of literature, sensed that his father’s orderly if hard-edged approach to daily life had somehow gone off the rail. It wasn’t just that his father had begun to sound something like the Sterling Hayden character in Dr. Strangelove; he had actually built a kind of fortress in the mountains of Pennsylvania and become convinced that environmental catastrophe and apocalypse were nigh. He had also begun an affair with a strange woman whom, he insisted, should live with him and his wife in their keep—where, presumably, they would keep the bloodline alive when the end of civilization came. Although it would have been easy to turn such material into the cheapest kind of farce (or the most self-serving hatchet-job imaginable), the author succeeds in highlighting the poignant grief that his father’s decline both announced and engendered.
A portrait that is at once loving and heartbroken, confused and sympathetic. It adds up to a remarkable—and unsettling—study in failure and forgiveness.