In this debut novel, a son recounts his struggles living in the shadow of his famous father.
Wolfson tells the tale of Leon Perlman, beginning with his visit to see his elderly, caustic father, Vincent, wintering in Puerto Rico. From there, the novel circles back to little Leon growing up in a brownstone on Manhattan’s Upper East Side and attending private school. But all is not well: his author/playwright father is cruel to his meek mother, who eventually leaves, and mean to his three sons. Wintering in New York and summering on Cape Cod, Leon progresses through the rites of 1960s youth—sex (both voluntary and involuntary), drugs, and a first job. Then he lights out for California, befriending the owner of a plumbing company who understands Leon’s “unspoken sorrow” and gives him a position. Leon endures the taunts of blue-collar co-workers, quits, and becomes an insurance agent—giving him what he calls “a license to steal”—until he breaks down and “just can’t do it anymore.” Returning back East, he bears up under his father’s “cutting criticisms” and the “essential disharmony and chaos” of Perlman family life. He bounces around teaching jobs in New England but returns to the Cape with his wife and daughter, working as a school bus driver. After his father dies in a fire, Leon inherits the old man’s Cape property, and he consults a psychic and several Native Americans to exorcise his father’s lingering presence there. The book ends with fuzzy snapshots of Wolfson, his wife, daughter, and father. The author has produced a richly detailed, deftly written book. He’s particularly adept at descriptions of places, from LA’s “indistinguishable small cities oozing down” along the freeways to lyrical portraits of the Cape’s sweeping landscape, and of people, too: a woman with bad makeup is described as looking like “an open burned marshmallow.” It’s not always clear why Leon is so resentful of his father, but in his narcissistic and petulant moments, he resembles no one as much as Vincent, albeit in diluted form. Leon’s story sometimes threatens to become a self-pitying tale of his wrestling with his personal demons, but Wolfson effectively lightens this chronicle of family dysfunction with subtle humor. Overall, the book raises more questions than it answers, which isn’t a bad thing.
A smooth read that succeeds as a case study of the failed promise of the baby boomers.