One of the classics of New England literature — of American literature — is a luminous essay titled “Once More to the Lake” that E.B. White wrote in Harper’s Magazine in the months before Pearl Harbor. It dealt with the author’s preoccupation with the Maine lakeside camp that, beginning in 1904, his family visited every year for the month of August, and with his determination to bring his son — “who had never had any fresh water up his nose and who had seen lily pads only from train windows" — to the place that had marked him so deeply.
Thus: “Once More to the Rodeo.”
The rodeo in question is in Iowa, not ordinarily favored with the the cream of rodeo performers, but a touchstone in the life of Calvin Hennick, who over the years has written for the Globe and other publications. The son in question is named Nile, the mixed-race child of Hennick and his Haitian wife. The tension in the book — the tension in Hennick’s life — is how a white man should prepare his son for the vicissitudes of life, and for the vice of racism.
The result is an enormously endearing, and often wrenching, volume that examines questions of parenthood, childhood and, most poignantly, Hennick’s own childhood memories of a difficult parent and the scars he left on him. For every father-and-son story is really about two sets of fathers and sons, because no father ventures into the kind of challenging territory that Hennick explores without exploring his own childhood and his own father.
So in this multidimensional, multigenerational tale, much of the introspection occurs on a drive from Rockport, where questions of race are not motif number one, to Iowa, where blacks comprise 3.2 percent of the population. Presumably Hennick understood this demographic oddity — known to every political writer who ever ventured into Iowa to cover its caucuses and wondered why the state has such a charmed place in presidential politics — when he packed the car and packed his son into it.
Perhaps Hennick was channeling more than White when he set out on this journey; perhaps he had John Steinbeck in mind, and the wonderful “Travels With Charley,” another travelogue of interstate travel with introspection. In any case, this becomes a voyage of discovery, more for the father than for the son, and those discoveries involve regret (over elements of Hennick’s own life) and hope (for the life he hopes his son might have).
Along the way there is a meal in a restaurant that looks like a spaceship and a whirl in a go-cart; but there’s much more than that. The two talk. The two quarrel. The two are exposed to the worst of each other. And the best. There are cringe-worthy moments and Frostys from Wendy’s. In short, it is like any cross-country trip with a smart kid and a compulsively reflective father.
“I’ve been trying to make this trip into an intellectual adventure, a grand exploration of masculinity and fatherhood,” he writes. On occasion he tries too hard, and there ends up less adventure and exploration than figuring out where to eat that night.
But the most difficult part of this journey is when the author confronts his own past: a difficult relationship with a difficult father who, among other rancid qualities, apparently was a raging racist. Also Hennick has a history of consuming too much booze. Plus one other: maybe too much soul-searching. (That soul gets an enormous amount of searching in these pages.)
To Hennick’s credit, so does the question of his son’s future. “It’s impossible right now to know what sort of impact race will have on Nile’s sense of identity, or how it will circumscribe his ability to move through the world as he pleases,” Hennick writes. “It’s my whitest, most naive hope that my son will never have to worry about racism at all.”
Of course he knows that’s not going to happen, for Hennick was the central figure in a 2017 Fenway Park incident triggered by a racial slur a fan uttered regarding the Kenyan woman singing the national anthem. Nile was present during the episode. Hennick reported the slur and the fan was banned for life from Fenway.
In the course of the long drive the father tells the son about black baseball, explaining that people who look like the son once couldn’t play on teams consisting of players who look like the father. Hennick thinks: “There’s a falseness to what I’m telling him, this implication that racism is something from the past, something we’ve dealt with and moved on from.”
And so there is real honesty in this trip, and in this book.
How about that rodeo? It’s almost incidental to this story. There was saddle bronc riding, calf roping, and barrel racing. But overall it was a lot like life itself, a bit disappointing.
“I came here seeking grand answers about what it means to be a man and a father," he writes, "and instead I got to eat a walking taco and witness a handful of blink-and-you’ll-miss-them bull rides.”
Hold it there, Calvin. Those questions can’t be answered in one drive across half the country, nor with a bit of gawking at the steer wrestling. They are lifelong questions, and when the father has answered them, they may become the questions that animate the son. For the time being, it’s enough to have raised those questions. Now get on with the hard work of raising that son. He’s going to be a great kid.
ONCE MORE TO THE RODEO
By Calvin Hennick
Pushcart Press, 250 pp., $22.95
David M. Shribman, for a decade the Globe’s Washington bureau chief, is a nationally syndicated columnist.