If this year’s graduates have been under-celebrated, June’s other traditional honorees — fathers — have carried on much as usual. One notable difference has been the masks. Every father wears one figuratively of course; getting to know our fathers as people becomes the eventual work of the child.
Ariana Neumann grew up in Venezuela perceiving her father simply as a prosperous businessman whose attention she craved. A born snoop, she was so drawn to mystery that she formed a spy club. Around age 8, in the family library, she discovered a box containing an ID card dated 1943. The picture was her father’s, but the name was not. “When Time Stopped: A Memoir of My Father’s War and What Remains” is Neumann’s account of her years-long quest for an explanation.
The product of a second marriage (her father was nearly 50 when she was born), Neumann was raised Roman Catholic. She had no idea she was Jewish until she entered Tufts, and a fellow student’s passing remark prompted questions.
Her father had always declined to discuss his personal history, but, as Neumann would discover after his death, he had left her a trail, in the form of a box crammed with papers.
Hans Neumann grew up in Czechoslovakia, where his father, Otto, ran a paint company. Initially, members of the Neumann family were able to resist the Nazis’ growing restrictions on Jews, but eventually Hans’s mother, Ella, was sent to Terezin, a labor camp not far from Prague. In 1942, Otto was forced to follow, but Hans, now working at the paint factory, won a last-minute reprieve. After a period of hiding, and aided by friends, he forged the fake ID card, using it to land a position at a paint factory in Berlin. There, in the heart of the regime, he would later write, he focused on posing as a mad scientist who was indifferent to politics.
It was an audacious subterfuge, and it spared him. Ariana Neumann used the documents he left behind, as well as correspondence and interviews with family and friends, to piece the story together. The people at the heart of this suspenseful narrative come hauntingly into focus as Neumann draws closer to the truth.
In “These Boys and Their Fathers,” Don Waters looks to solve a different type of paternal mystery. Deserted as a toddler, Waters sets out to discover what kind of man had left him behind. Robert Stanley Waters offered scant material. In the 1950s and early ’60s, he had been a minor celebrity in the California surfing world. After a brief marriage to Waters’s mother, he hopped from job to job, at one point helping to dig tunnels for the proposed nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain.
Meanwhile, Don Waters grew up in Reno. He first met Robert Waters at 19, and had only four brief meetings with him afterward. Wide-ranging in its quest for understanding, “These Boys and Their Fathers” offers an emphatic record of the scars of abandonment.
Like Ariana Neumann, Anne Fadiman was the belated child of a second marriage. But her father, the writer Clifton Fadiman, was famously available, known nationally as the man determined to school middle America in the Great Books.
Clifton Fadiman grew up Jewish and poor in Brooklyn and, in his daughter’s estimation, spent his life trying to outrun both conditions. He did so by embracing A. Western literature and B. wine. “The Wine Lover’s Daughter” pairs Anne Fadiman’s efforts to appreciate B with a portrait of her A-saturated father.
Though her palate ultimately fails her, Fadiman’s insight does not. She is particularly good on her father’s sense of himself as an imposter, and the mystifying effects of aging. Clifton Fadiman died at 95, on Father’s Day, a contentedly felled oak who, in the end, left his daughter plenty of sunlight.
In “Dad’s Maybe Book,” Tim O’Brien shifts the perspective, assessing parenthood from the vantage point of delayed fatherhood. Best known for his novels depicting the Vietnam War, O’Brien continues in this memoir to struggle with the personal fallout of having served. Only this time, he wants to tell his sons, Timmy and Tad, what he knows about war — and a good many other things besides.
“Dad’s Maybe Book” is a compilation of fragments — memories and mini-essays — joined by O’Brien’s sense of urgency as he reaches 70. He is a superb stylist whose dread of leaving his children behind floats on a stream of poignant observations.
Though addressing his sons, he eases into memories of his alcoholic father, and his long-ago yearning to be closer to him. A set piece on Hemingway midway through the book offers an entwined account of real and literary fathers that is powerful enough to stand alone. Wry, confessional and hopelessly smitten, O’Brien offers his sons a cracked vessel that overflows with love.
M.J. Andersen is an author and journalist who writes frequently on the arts.