I've always envied boys with rotten dads. I was reminded of this strange yearning as I reread The Last American Man by Elizabeth Gilbert.
By the time in 1993 that Gilbert met her subject, Eustace Conway, he had hiked the 2,000-mile Appalachian trail (in winter, without provisions) and floated the Mississippi in a handmade canoe. Not long after their first encounter, he rode a horse across the United States in 103 days, a record.
Conway was, in her words, "wildly competent," a man whose "body can do anything he asks of it": fashion a teepee, skin a deer, sew buckskin clothing using the sinew taken from alongside the deer's spine. Conway wasn't quite as gifted a student, however, and, too bad for him, because that was the standard by which his father, Eustace Robinson Conway III, a certified math and science genius, chose to measure his oldest son.
Dinnertime in the Conway home, in Gastonia, N.C., circa 1975, featured a barrage of verbal abuse that even in Gilbert's retelling makes a reader flinch. "You are stupid. I've never met a child more dimwitted. I don't know how I could have sired so idiotic a son. What are we to surmise? I believe you are simply incompetent and will never learn anything."
That was only prelude to the hours of badgering by his father to complete arithmetic homework. Eustace's panic and distress manifested as a childhood-long constipation, he tells Gilbert. "Too terrified to even take a s---."
Terrible fathers do terrible harm to sons, but there are many ways to be terrible, and as the elder Conway proves, violence isn't always a feature. There are fathers whose outlandish imperfections rush their children into adulthood the way floods drive people to higher ground. And there's the brand of terrible committed by the dad who simply disappears, killing the lights on the way out. Now, go find the door on your own.
No doubt the son yoked to a tyrant yearns for him to vanish. But the son of a father who was never there can read The Last American Man or Geoffrey Wolff's memoir The Duke of Deception, about his father's lifetime of cons and lying, and find himself pining for that larger-than-life character to push against. The years of torment achieve a weight and the weight is expressed in stories — harrowing maybe, but stories nonetheless. And there's nothing more valuable than that.
There's a no-good dad in the background of Ben Montgomery's story about Vic Prinzi ("Unbeaten"), the former Florida State quarterback who in 1961 spent a tumultuous eight months at the Florida School for Boys. The dad belongs to one of Prinzi's football players, Harley Woods, a defiant but charismatic boy whom Prinzi attempts to rehabilitate. You never meet the man, but you can see the result of his indifference in his son's simmering rage at the world.
I won't give away the payoff of Ben's piece, which exposes the abuses at the infamous reform school from a totally new perspective, but the relationship between the teenager and the coach crystallizes another truism of fatherhood. In the best of all worlds, your son gets a second father, a mentor he chooses as an adult, one tailored to his particular ambitions. Or in the case of Harley Woods, a man who steps in, ready to repair the damage done by his predecessor.
My three sons have already had their father for twice as long under the same roof as I spent with mine. In the main, I'd say that's a good thing, but I know that it also means twice as much exposure to my eminently fallible and inconsistent parenting. (Fortunately for them their mother is consistently stellar.) I've come to embrace that imperfection, understanding that my greatest value to them may ultimately be as an example to avoid as much as emulate. They've got what they got and one day, I sincerely hope, they'll know their minds well enough to go get what they truly want.
And maybe one day they'll tell a friend, as Geoffrey Wolff did, "I would not for anything have had my father be other than what he was, except happier . . ."
Floridian editor Bill Duryea can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8770.