I don’t seek out fiction about dysfunctional families as actively as I used to, but I still consider myself a bit of a connoisseur of the genre. Lily King’s Father of the Rain is in some ways very typical of this genre, but it rarely resorts to cliché, and King’s characterization insists that every character, even minor ones, be taken on his or her own terms. Like real dysfunctional families, this book is maddening and sad, but I read it with great interest, involvement and admiration.
Daley Amory is eleven when the novel opens, and her mother is on the verge of divorcing her father. On their last days as an intact family, Daley’s father takes her to a pet store to buy a puppy. Daley knows that she and her mother will be leaving that night, but her father doesn’t. She turns down all the pure-bred dogs her father offers because she knows she needs to choose a dog she won’t mind abandoning. She chooses a mutt, but of course she is still terribly sad to leave him behind. The sadness of this initial loss never stops haunting the novel, even as Daley’s family grows more and more fragmented and unhappy.
Meanwhile, at home, Daley’s mother hosts a friend named Bob Wuzzy, who runs something called Project Genesis, which seems to have something to do with promoting racial harmony. One of the sources of conflict in this novel is that Daley’s father, Gardiner, is a blue-blooded New England WASP who grows increasingly annoyed by and suspicious of the changing political sensibilities of the time (the novel opens in 1971) while her mother is established early in the novel as a Democrat actively involved in many social issues. When the novel opens, it seems as if Bob Wuzzy, Project Genesis, and ‘70’s social issues are going to be important to the plot, but as soon as Daley’s mother leaves Gardiner these issues are never mentioned again. Bob Wuzzy (“I don’t know if Bob Wuzzy is white or black. He has no hair, not a single strand, and caramel-colored skin. When I asked my mother she asked me why it mattered, and when I asked my father he said if he wasn’t black he should be” ) is only around long enough for Gardiner to make a few “Fuzzy Wuzzy was a bear” remarks, and the racially-ambiguous children (“When they get out of the pool and run back to the diving board, the water shimmers on their skin, which looks so smooth, as if it has been polished by Lemon Pledge. None of them are close to being ‘black.’ They are all different shades of brown” ) that have accompanied Bob Wuzzy to the Amorys’ house and may or may not be Bob’s actual children never reappear either. It’s possible that Lily’s mother hosted Wuzzy & Co. primarily (or only) to make Gardiner angry and lost interest in them after she divorced him. It’s also possible that she continues the work on her political causes after the divorce but that Daley, who is the first-person narrator, does not report on it because after the divorce she pays very little attention to her mother. While her mother is her primary custodial parent, Daley’s attentions during her pre-teen and teenaged years are on what happens in her father’s house, which is where the loudest and most attention-seeking demons of this dysfunctional family take root. Daley’s mother won’t win any Mother of the Year awards, but her dysfunction is quieter, and she lives on the fringes of the novel after the first few chapters.
We also never learn what “Project Genesis” is, though I’m pretty sure it’s not the same Project Genesis that plays an important role in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock.
Gardiner Amory sees himself as besieged on all fronts. Liberals and black people and women are encroaching upon his life in his small Massachusetts town (though he’s pleased that he can retreat to his all-white country club). He is a raging alcoholic fond of dramatic displays involving screaming, aggressive and semi-public sexual displays, and nudity. His friends love him; they see him as the life of any party. He works lazily at some financial firm, and his income is assured by virtue of his trust fund. Almost immediately after Daley and her mother leave, Gardiner begins seeing, and later marries, the mother of Daley’s good friend Patrick. When Daley visits her father on weekends, she shares her old room with Patrick’s sister, and Patrick has taken over her role as her father’s sidekick and ally. Daley’s mother’s divorce lawyer is a constant object of mockery and rage in this newly-created family. And of course, while Gardiner is sometimes a jovial drunk, at other times he is awful: derisive and narcissistic and mean. With his posse of dogs as his loyal companions and his status as Unspeakable Asshole, Gardiner has a lot in common with Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights. I have no reason to think that King intended this connection, but it’s certainly present.
The first half of the novel brings us through these years – Daley’s adolescence and early adulthood – and while these 120-or-so pages are as painful as they sound, they are also beautiful. As maddening as Gardiner is, it is impossible to hate him (though it is certainly possible to wish for social services involvement). His new wife is hapless and needy; her children hapless, needy, and pathetic. Daley is pulled in all the directions you can imagine, vacillating between her deep need to be loved by her father and her awareness of how deeply pathetic and self-destructive he is.
The second half of the novel takes place in Daley’s late twenties, just after she receives a Ph.D in anthropology and is about to move on to a prestigious new job as a junior professor at UC Berkeley, where she plans to move with her new boyfriend – a black man with a Ph.D in philosophy who accepts a position much less prestigious than hers in order to move to California with her. The day before she leaves, she receives a phone call from her brother (whom I haven’t mentioned yet – he is about 5-6 years older than Daley, and his primary talent is disappearing whenever things get difficult) summoning her back to Massachusetts, where Gardiner’s second wife had just left him and he is a few drinks away from suicide-by-alcohol. Daley can’t point herself in any direction except at her father; she aims her tightly-packed car east instead of west and shows up at his house for the first time in years. Her boyfriend is first surprised, then furious; when she calls the anthropology department at Berkeley and quits her job, he leaves her. Daley enters the trenches of recovery with her father – she physically deposits him at AA every evening, cooks healthy food for him, and cleans up his house so it’s an inviting place for him to spend time. He starts looking her in the eye with a new appreciation. Initially skeptical, he begins to embrace AA and think of himself as an alcoholic in recovery. Daley agonizes over her lost job and her boyfriend’s departure, but she can’t turn away – her desperation for Gardiner’s love keeps her anchored (or shackled) there. She reconnects with a few old friends. After several months, though, Gardiner begins dating an old friend, a woman who has always thought of Gardiner as charismatic, risqué, and hilarious. It was the drunk Gardiner she liked, though, and slowly, not entirely knowing what kind of person she is unleashing, she coaxes the drinker back out. This part of the novel is almost unendurable – it is so sad, after everything that Daley gave up and all the progress that Gardiner has made – but it’s the path this novel has to follow. As encouraging as Gardiner’s recovery seems during the few months that he commits to AA, he is not a man who can stay sober, and King was bold and brave in insisting on bringing Gardiner all the way down to whatever happens after rock bottom. I’ve read so many novels that settle for easy answers, and I want to find all of those authors and hand them copies of this book with a little note that just says THIS.
The novel takes one more quick leap into the future and ends in 2008. I won’t tell you a lot about what happens there, but I will say that 1) the novel never stops being painful, 2) in spite of #1, Gardiner and Daley do get a reconciliation of sorts (and as someone who has seen a parent descend into physical decline and dementia, King gets these final scenes absolutely, painstakingly right), and 3) by 2008, Daley has her own small brood of mixed-race children, and a lot of the imagery from the first chapter is echoed in the last, except that in chapter 1 the mixed-race children are the interlopers, roughhousing in the Amorys’ backyard pool, chaotic and faceless and alien, and in the final chapter the mixed-race children are Daley’s own, intimately known and loved, part of the clan – and even Gardiner embraces them.
This is a wonderful novel. I recommend it to just about any reader, although it is certainly a painful read at times, so make sure your antidepressants are refilled and you have a plan in place for how you will bring yourself out of its cloud when you are finished: time spent with a goofy toddler would work, or maybe some sex, or maybe a classic episode of Saturday Night Live – one of the ones where Jon Lovitz played Dukakis, perhaps? Or, in my preferred mode of consolation, you could spend some good solid quality time with a rambunctious cat and the contents of a full-to-bursting paper shredder.