Wartman, a Philadelphia newspaper writer, was two years old when his father died of a brain tumor; now in his 30s, the author canvasses his childhood, the memories he can extract from forgetful, grudging relatives, and the often painful experiences of other grown fatherless children he has interviewed to measure the power fatherlessness has had in shaping his own life. When Wartman was a boy, no one would tell him much about his father, a 31-year-old department-store clerk, beyond that ""He died just after you were born"" (Wartman's mother) and ""He was too good to die"" (Wartman's uncle). So he develops two fantasies: one, that his father is not really dead, but in prison for a crime he didn't commit, and will be returning soon; and two, that if he did die just after Wartman's birth, the death was somehow Wartman's fault. In either case, Wartman doesn't feel able to press his grief-stricken, unreasonably taciturn mother or his ""manly"" uncle for details--that is, until he is of the age his father was at death and becomes convinced he, too, is dying of a tumor. Then, when he questions his mother, uncle, and older sister, he meets a bewildering, affronted wall of silence; and when the doctors assure Wartman he's not sick but suffering from hypoglycemia and anxiety, he sets out to uncover what lies beneath his own, his relatives' and other families' silence when a biological father dies or disappears. What he finds is a web of need, denial, fear, loss, grief, fantasy, and isolation that amounts to a yawning gap--one that Wartman is eventually able to fill by forgiving both his parents, visiting his father's grave, and forging new links with his adolescent son. A fascinating exploration, marred by occasional clumsy writing and emotional oversights--for example, Wartman's mother's ""grief,"" which seems more a kind of mean withholding, disappears in bouts of chattiness without explanation late in the book. So, on the whole, a thought-provoking, original but somewhat murky evocation of the central importance of fathers.