GLOUCESTER — Not long ago, for the first time in years, Peter Anastas pulled out his divorce papers. His son Benjamin — like his father, a writer — was working on a memoir, and he had a few questions about the collapse of his parents’ marriage in Gloucester.
Tucked away in the file was the manuscript for a long-forgotten short story the elder Anastas had written based on the divorce. “I wrote that story and forgot about it,” he recalls. Finding it after all this time was a surprise, and a blessing.
“Freud says there are no accidents,” he says.
The heartbreaking story helped Benjamin Anastas complete his new memoir, “Too Good to Be True,” which was published in October and has been hailed as one of the best books of 2012. Covering Ben’s own failed marriage, his crushing debt, and his desperate efforts to regain some of the literary luster he’d earned with his 1999 debut novel, “An Underachiever’s Diary,” some readers have been uncomfortable about the depths of despair the book plumbs.
Yet more than anything, the book is about Benjamin’s life-affirming relationship with his young son, Isaac, whom he calls Primo. And the process of writing it has given him a renewed appreciation for his own father, who has spent his life chronicling his beloved hometown.
From 1978 to 1990, Peter Anastas wrote hundreds of columns for the Gloucester Daily Times, many of which he has gathered for a forthcoming collection. In the introduction to the book, “A Walker in the City,” his son recalls Peter’s outsized affection for his hometown.
“I was always a little jealous of Gloucester, to be perfectly honest,” Ben writes. “In the zero-sum emotional logic of childhood, Gloucester had our father’s ardor all the time, seven days a week, while we only got him on the usual divorced-Dad schedule of alternating weekends, every-other Christmas, etc. How could our father love a city, I wondered — one that smelled like ripe fish on certain days, no less, and didn’t even have a video arcade — more than he loved us?”
One day, while our mother is in group, they bring us to the room where they watch us playing and sit us down...for each of us they have a sign: mine says TOO GOOD TO BE TRUE...We are far away from home. We miss our father. Sometimes we get scared. - Excerpt from “Too Good to be True”
But the younger Anastas knows better now. The breakthrough he had when his father shared the short story with him made it seem as though they were collaborating in some way on his memoir, he says, speaking on the phone from Bennington College in Vermont, where he teaches. (He lives in Brooklyn.)
“I felt I couldn’t write it without him,” he says. “It was a nice feeling.”
The title of “Too Good to Be True” comes from a phrase on a sign that was draped around young Ben’s neck when he and his siblings joined their mother, who was battling severe depression, in a “fringe-therapy” group held in Peabody in the 1970s. Despite its grueling accounts of emotional distress, the book has been noted for its abundance of comic relief, with one vivid scene recalling the Anastas children’s simultaneous amusement and horror when their high-spirited father moons a friend in a hometown parking lot.
Ben laughs when told his father called his children’s embarrassment with him the “squirm factor.”
“When you’re a teenager, pretty much everything about your parents makes you squirm,” Ben says. He’s still uncomfortable when he confronts the nude portrait of his father that hangs in Peter’s house. Yet his father’s commitment to openness taught Ben, 42, to be brutally honest in his own writing.
“I would never not want him to be honest about his experiences,” says Peter, 75, sitting in a tea shop in Gloucester on a recent afternoon.
“There are certain episodes I’m not proud of,” he continues, “but what he writes about me is the truth. . . . It’s amazing how accurate memories of me and Gloucester are. . . . I have to say, he’s got my behavior down — all my raps.”
Peter Anastas, who befriended the late Gloucester poet Charles Olson when he was young, has written several books, including “At the Cut,” a reminiscence of his youth on Cape Ann. Olson, he says, visited Ben when he was a baby, and Peter met the novelist Gilbert Sorrentino, one of his favorite authors, in Olson’s kitchen. In a bizarre twist, the late Sorrentino’s son has been identified as the mysterious “Nominee” — the writer who took Ben’s place in his ex-wife’s life — whom he declines to name in his book.
It’s a messy business, writing frankly about the most difficult parts of your life. “Ben is one of those people who doesn’t like to attract attention,” says his father. “He’s very modest. My sense is that he felt, both personally and artistically, he needed to put himself out there. It was therapeutic, in the same way I needed to write about growing up in Gloucester.”
For the second time in his career, Benjamin Anastas has achieved the kind of mainstream literary success that has never come into view for his father. In one of the many heavyweight blurbs the book has received, Daniel Handler (a.k.a. Lemony Snicket) writes that the author of “Too Good to Be True” “has taken disheartening failure and turned it into searing, soaring success.”
Peter Anastas says he’s been asked a lot lately whether some part of him might be faintly envious. Not in the least, he replies. Having studied the Beats and the Black Mountain writers, he’s always considered himself an “underground” author. Just as he wouldn’t dream of begrudging his other son, Jonathan’s, lucrative career as a Los Angeles marketing executive, or his daughter Rhea’s PhD in art history, he is thrilled for Ben’s literary achievements.
“What excites me is how well he writes,” he says. “That’s a great feeling.”
In some ways his father is “too generous,” says Ben Anastas. “The last time I saw him, he said, ‘You’re lucky your father isn’t a big important writer. Wouldn’t that be awful if, say, your dad was Martin Amis?’
“I said, ‘Dad, sure, I guess that’s true.’ But walking around Gloucester, he’s certainly a well-known writer. Which is where I see him.”James Sullivan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.