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Finding fathers, great and grim, in fiction

Who's the best father in fiction? And who's the worst?

There's plenty of competition. Family relationships are rich subject matter for novelists, and countless books offer readers portraits of cool dads we wish could adopt us, while others portray evil fathers who make us relieved that they're not raising kids in the real world.

Here are a few notable literary fathers, great and grim. I'm sticking with biological fathers here, so no perverse stepfathers like Lolita's Humbert Humbert, nor wonderful adoptive fathers like Walter Mosley's Easy Rawlins, hero of a dozen books. I've also chosen these fathers from fairly recent novels, leaving out such classic bad dads as King Lear and Pap Finn, and good ones like Pride and Prejudice's Mr. Bennet.

Colette Bancroft, Times book editor

Dear dads

I'm going back more than 50 years for this one, but only because Atticus Finch in Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird is hands-down the fictional good dad everyone thinks of first. Atticus manages to be a pillar of quiet integrity without losing his warmth and humor, all the while giving Jem and Scout an idyllic, loving, free-range childhood.

As utterly bleak as Cormac McCarthy's apocalyptic The Road is, its nameless main character, called the man, shines as a fiercely devoted dad. In a savage, dying world, he will do anything to protect his young son — and to keep the boy's hope alive.

Ursula Todd, the main character in Kate Atkinson's Life After Life, lives her life over and over again, with changes large and small each time she is reborn in England in the first half of the 20th century. But in every variation on her life, her father, Hugh Todd, is her most reliable source of wisdom, wit and unconditional love.

J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter novels are full of dead dads, wicked dads and surrogate fathers awful (Vernon Dursley) and awesome (Dumbledore). But the best live, actual dad in the seven Potter books is Arthur Weasley, affectionate sire of a multitudinous, rambunctious clan — and brave and resourceful opponent of the forces of evil.

Father fails

It's bad enough that Theo Decker, the young protagonist of Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch, loses his mother in a museum bombing. Then, just when he's found a safe place with a friend's family in New York, his beyond-deadbeat dad, Larry Decker, shows up to whisk Theo off to a lonely and neglected life in Las Vegas — and that's not the worst of Larry's plans.

Edward St. Aubyn's elegantly satirical Patrick Melrose series consists of five semi-autobiographical novels: Never Mind, Bad News, Some Hope, Mother's Milk and At Last. They're based on St. Aubyn's youth as a member of an aristocratic, upper-class and deeply messed up British family, and the unremitting villain of the tale is Patrick's viciously snobbish, sexually abusive father, David Melrose.

Another blast from the past, this time a bad dad everyone thinks of: Jack Torrance, the unhinged, alcoholic writer in Stephen King's The Shining. Torrance's breakdown during a long, isolating winter and his terrifying attacks on his wife and son are unforgettable — but it's interesting to note that in King's novel (unlike in Stanley Kubrick's film), he has a moment of something like redemption.

Readers curious about the roots of Lisbeth Salander's violent tendencies in Stieg Larsson's Millennium trilogy will find answers in the second book, The Girl Who Played With Fire. It recounts Salander's childhood experiences with her father, former Soviet spy Alexander Zalachenko, who so brutally abuses her mother that, at age 12, Salander tries to murder him.

Finding fathers, great and grim, in fiction 06/12/14 [Last modified: Thursday, June 12, 2014 12:10pm]

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