Why does laughter sometimes interrupt our efforts to grieve at the funerals of loved ones? At his father’s memorial service, Richard Hoffman caught himself heaving with a mixture of giggles and tears, until his son soothed him with a hand on his back.
“I wonder if I was ever as calming to my father. I only know I meant to be,” he writes, catching his own breath and the reader’s, in his tough and tender new memoir, “Love & Fury.”
Hoffman, a senior writer-in-residence at Emerson College and chairman of PEN New England, felt compelled to write about his family, manhood, and the distance between fathers and sons upon the death of his dad — which keeps reasserting itself in this book like the recliner in which his father spent his last decades after the death of his wife.
The author, a poet, has just that kind of precision-tuned eye and ear. Recalling the absurdity of a visit to the undertaker’s storeroom to spend a few minutes with his father’s dead body, he remembers that the “room vibrated a bit and darkened from a truck going by in the narrow alley and I caught a little bit of salsa on the radio as it passed.”
Hoffman’s father was a decent man who worked at the Boys Club in a Pennsylvania mining town. He was also a product of his generation, an occasionally violent, sometimes dismissive father, an “us” and “them” kind of person who once marveled at the crush of humanity living in New York while on a trip to see a ballgame there.
“I mean, all those people on top of one another!” he said to the carload of boys he had driven. “How the hell do you figure out who to hate?”
Plumbing the past as he strains to fathom why his father remains such a mystery to him — “I don’t believe he had a terrible secret he kept from us,” Hoffman writes; “it’s more that he couldn’t find a way to articulate his own complexity” — Hoffman also looks ahead to the life awaiting his daughter’s baby boy, whose father, a Jamaican man named Damion, has been imprisoned.
Hoffman recalls visiting the young man at MCI-Concord, just after Damion’s own father had died.
“I am happy for those men who feel no ambivalence, no confusion or puzzlement about their fathers,” Hoffman writes, not that Damion was one of them. “I’ve never met a man like that, but they must exist somewhere.”
Though he returns repeatedly to the notion that he can’t comprehend his feelings, Hoffman’s descriptions of them are often virtuoso. The way his reaction to his daughter’s unplanned pregnancy took him by surprise, for instance: “I felt a hot splash of joy right in the center of my chest.”
In an earlier memoir, “Half the House,” Hoffman wrote about two brothers who suffered from muscular dystrophy and had died and the sexual abuse he had been subjected to by a youth football coach. These were, as he notes in a passage in “Love & Fury,” part of a long list of verboten subjects in his family: “Not the Kind of Thing You Talk About.”
But, while he wrestles with his complicated relationship with this father in the first autobiography, Hoffman’s meditations in this new memoir fill some critical space. In another passage that will give his readers pause, he recalls his inability to simply mourn his father, to “mourn him and be done with him.”
No one can really have “a continuous sensible experience of oneself,” he writes. “It’s more like a passage we must make through the dark, underground, with a miner’s lamp on our helmets: at any given moment we can only see a little part of where we are.”
Here, however, our guide has gone deep, and his vision is rare.James Sullivan, author of four books, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.