DAD by William Wharton
Kirkus Star


A Novel
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Nothing clarifies and focuses a superior first novel like its successor: all the cells of the former are stained by the latter's stresses, repetitions; and a pattern ought to start to emerge. Well, that's happened here--and the news is that Birdy was no fluke. Wharton has a real theme--the joys and abysmal pain of containing alternate realities within one life--and he has the continued means to bring it across powerfully. In Birdy, the wish to be a bird inhabited a boy; in Dad, the desire to have lived a better, different life floods through the consciousness of an old man under great stress. Narrating is John Tremont, Jr., 52, a painter who lives in Paris and is called back to southern California when his mother has a series of serious heart attacks. A frightened, fragile, high-strung, and domineering woman, Mom can't stand her invalidism. And when the far gentler Dad suddenly takes ill too-bladder tumors--and begins to abruptly fail (the sudden onset of horrifying senility and coma), John Jr. is in the custodial role of helplessly overseeing his parents' degeneration--that trauma which all adults fear and are loath to consider. (Complicating the situation is the arrival of John's own son, dropped-out from college, who puts him into a double bind of generations forward and back: how can he be a father if, at 52, he's so concerned but ultimately ineffectual a son?) This far along, then, Wharton has been providing a grimly specific, daily, realistic portrait of the horrors of oldness and dying: the dealing with incontinence, with unfeeling doctors, the impatience, the being constantly on-call, the irreversibility of the decline. And then, about mid-way, miraculously, Dad pulls out of his senile coma and seems to recover completely. In fact, he becomes more alive than ever: spry, mischievous, randy, creative, antic--a Pan far more spirited than the already scared-witless and emotionally costive Mom can bear. Even worse for her, Dad now admits to a lifelong feeling of having had another, near-duplicate life and family across the country--in Cape May, New Jersey! Delusion? Possibility? As Dad's freedom, real or imagined, is quickly beaten back into insensateness and eventual death by Mom, we watch this lovely flicker being snuffed out. And as incontestably awful and frightening as such a common situation is--death of spirit by family, that is--Wharton invests it with a hint of yearning and mirage simply by piling one plain, real occurrence atop another: he's a superb fabulist, we're learning, of the mundane, American, no-frills existence. True, alternating chapters narrated by Tremont's son, meant as a foil, don't really work (just as the double narrator in parts of Birdy didn't)--but this is only a minor flaw. So: a major novel from a writer whose magnitude has now been gloriously confirmed--in a haunting book full of pain and misery, but one which (thanks to Wharton's method, skill, and vista) you have to be reminded to be depressed over.

Pub Date: May 28th, 1981
ISBN: 155704256X
Page count: 468pp
Publisher: Knopf
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1st, 1981


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