Our coronavirus coverage is free for the first 24 hours. Find the latest information at Please consider subscribing or donating.

  1. Archive

In the name of the fathers // Chasing her shadow


By Mary Gordon

Random House, $24

Reviewed by Robert H. Knox

Mary Gordon's father was Jewish, born in Russia. Educated only through the second year of high school and trapped in an unsuccessful family, he later reinvented himself as an American, a converted Catholic, a fictitious Harvard graduate and a writer. He died when Gordon was 7. She knew him only as this invention, and as a father who loved her so excessively that his death left her with a lifelong obsession.

The Shadow Man is the product and perhaps, to some extent, the cure of this obsession. Gordon is the author of a number of stories and essays, and four novels, including the acclaimed Final Payments whose main characters are a father and his daughter.

In this memoir Gordon comes to terms with her father's hateful qualities, from his toothless, wet kisses to his anti-Semitism. She also mourns her lost father in an excess of overwhelming grief.

Her search for the truth about her father, who was, and is, her prime love, is carried through stages. She reads his hateful publications, from girlie magazines to anti-Semitic right-wing journals, and tracks his life (and his lies) through public archives. But she also celebrates him for his extraordinary qualities, links him to the world of social activities and finally, with a last sad gesture, relinquishes him to eternal existence in death.

In a less interesting part of the book, Gordon turns away from the personal and treats her quest for her father's identity as "A Police Investigation." She offers a cool portrait of her mother, who is still alive. Her efforts to portray her father as a "victim of his times," and in particular to connect his life with the fate of murdered Jews in the 20th century, are plausible but not strongly persuasive.

Fortunately, in the final section _ "Unburying and Burying My Father: A Journal" _ Gordon returns to her earlier, more personal mode and brings her quest, her psychic journey and the book to satisfying closure.

This personal memoir might have been called A Portrait of the Artist. The origins of Gordon's life as a writer are clearly shown here. The enduring neuroticism caused by her father's life and death colors her life, but those wounds have given her the strength and determination to write this book and, by extension, to become a writer. The themes of her fiction clearly have sprung from her relationship with and loss of her father.

If it had not already been discovered, the Electra complex would have to be invented to explain the passion that is presented here with a Lear-like intensity. The extremity of this case shows the latent power of the universal parent-child bond. Mary Gordon's father cast a shadow in which she lived her life, but the author has mastered her life through art.

Robert H. Knox is a retired professor of literature from New College of the University of South Florida.