To know my father is to know “The Treasurer’s Report,” a monologue written by Robert Benchley of the Algonquin Round Table. It was written in 1922 for a live revue show and later made into a short film starring Benchley. I don’t remember a time when he wasn’t pushing it on us. Benchley plays an assistant treasurer for a boys’ club who is forced to go on for the absent treasurer at the annual dinner gala and give the financial report of the organization. He’s the world’s biggest bumbler but in a very endearing way, giving this dry, dry report. It is a very funny piece but as outdated as my dad’s wooden shoehorns. It felt like old white guy stuff to us. He had gotten us to love old white guy stuff like the Andrews Sisters and Abbott and Costello and the Marx Brothers, but these could pass for entertainment, whereas the Benchley piece was literature, albeit comic, found in a book (we hadn’t seen the short film) on our living room bookshelves called The Treasurer’s Report and Other Aspects of Community Singing. It was just the kind of writing that Dad would bring up over and over again for us to “try.”
As a kid I was absolutely terrified of clichés. My father forbade them in our home. It was like the way other people regarded cursing in their house. If you said, “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink,” my father would go ballistic. Mom couldn’t control herself, apparently, because she violated this rule about every five seconds.
I was under the impression clichés could ruin you, ruin your life, your hopes and dreams, bring down your whole operation if you didn’t watch it. They were gateway language, leading straight to a business major, a golfy marriage, needlepoint pillows that said things about your golf game, and a self-inflicted gunshot to the head that your family called a heart attack in your alma mater announcements. Character suicide. Language was important, sexy, fun, alive, extremely personal, it was like food, you wouldn’t just pop anything into your mouth, why would you let anything pop out that hadn’t been considered and prepared for someone to enjoy? To ignore language was akin to ignoring the very person you were speaking to, rude, uncaring, unfeeling, cold. It was a way to connect and also to woo, to charm, to manipulate, it was a tool for love, for survival. Your words were you. To ignore language was to ignore Dad. To love words was to love Dad.
My father had extremely strong feelings about what was okay to read and what was not. I was completely intimidated by his literary standards and expectations and to this day it seems amazing and daring to me that other people will just read something without thinking much about it. “Oh, I found that book in my living room. I don’t know where it came from. My babysitter must have left it here.” Your babysitter? You just read whatever’s lying around? Are you crazy? You think you’re gonna make it to fifty living like that? My father asked in every conversation, “So what are you reading these days?” I always knew it was coming, I agonized over whether to lie or not.
He was like the Great Santini of the Strand. Few people could take him on; he was so well-read and had a memory that could retain every detail of everything he’d ever read, as well as jokes, lyrics, arias, names of store owners he’d met on his honeymoon in Paris, names of restaurants where gangsters were gunned down in 1924. He could quote lines from books he disliked better than you could quote lines from what you claimed was your favorite book of all time. The list of acceptable writers to bring up included: T. S. Eliot, Faulkner, Woody Allen’s humor pieces (and movies), Robert Benchley, Dorothy Parker, Zelda Fitzgerald, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Keats, James Joyce, Yeats, Wordsworth, Marcel Proust, Joseph Conrad, H. L. Mencken, Norman Mailer, Murray Kempton, Edmund Wilson, Ring Lardner, Henry James, Shakespeare, Evelyn Waugh (I remember repeating “E-vlyn, E-vlyn” to myself around the house when I was about fourteen, terrified I’d slip and pronounce it like an American woman’s name), D. H. Lawrence, Dos Passos, Nabokov, Chekhov, Twain and Hemingway, and composers like Leonard Bernstein, Mozart, Cole Porter and Fats Waller. Contemporary writing was only for people who might live forever, otherwise, the point was the greats.
He was always letting you know, huh, huh, who was in charge. You think you can sit around reading what we read when we read Raymond Carver all summer? You’ve got another thing coming, baby. He wouldn’t let you spend too much time talking about popular writers. If I was really pissed at him I might mention this “amazing!” John Fante novel I was halfway through. If I was getting a kick out of the plays of Christopher Durang, he’d say, “Oh, well, if you’re getting serious about farce, you can’t beat Oscar Wilde. What about the French? Have you tried Feydeau?” Like most people I thought e. e. cummings was delightful, a poet so playful he attracts teenagers and college students, but e. e. cummings was too bloody easy: easy easy cummings, Frank O’Hara? Too easy. There was always someone better, harder to read that he would divert your attention to: Keats or Shelley, for example.
“Jean-Joe, have you given that Ring Lardner I gave you a try yet?” Lardner’s book Haircut is a favorite of my father’s.
“My God, is that funny. Not a false note in it. Give it a try.”
The writers you were strongly discouraged from wasting your time on: Toni Morrison, anyone in the category of magical realism including Gabriel García Márquez and fantastic realism, Italo Calvino, historical fiction, Don DeLillo (“White Noise was absolute crap . . .”), Capote. Obviously anything inspirational was completely unacceptable, mass market anything, showing up to meet him for lunch with a John Grisham book under your arm would have been like showing up with no pants on, you know, get yourself together, for God’s sake. Not even discussed, it would be so ludicrous. If I could have calmed down a little I might have been a reader, but I was not a great, devoted or thorough reader. I loved family drama like Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, adored comic greats like Moliere, Wilde, the essays of Woody Allen. I always wanted to be well-read, but I wasn’t anywhere near wellread. Decently read, fantastically fakably read, [expletive]-lying-my-ass-off-to-your-face read. But it seemed like there was something more fun than books, like actual fun.
My dad had spent many years writing at five in the morning before he would go to work as a reporter at the St. Louis Globe-Democrat, years when he had four babies under five years old, a mailman-mauling dog named Wordsworth, and our pony, Pepsi, in the backyard, whose manure he would shovel before heading out to work. But now he wasn’t getting up at five a. m. to write and he wasn’t heading off to a job. He seemed to be losing something essential to being a writer. Or already had. Maybe it was getting older. Maybe it was Mom’s drinking, which wasn’t what you’d call ladylike, maybe it was his own drinking, maybe he lost his confidence after his second novel didn’t sell. Dad wasn’t writing anymore. Not that anyone talked about this while it was daylight outside. Now that he wasn’t writing, it seemed like he talked about writing and books constantly, as if the fantasy was growing, had to grow if the reality was shrinking.
The first sign that he was no longer writing was he never mentioned submitting anything anymore, and then he wasn’t talking at dinner about things he was writing, and then he wasn’t even talking about things he was researching. He began talking about things he was going to write and this is pretty much where things stayed. Things he was going to write. At some future point. Until then, ideas went into tape recorders and file cabinets, all very carefully labeled, documented and organized.
I remember when we watched The Shining. The Torrances moved to that inn in Colorado so that Jack could work on his book, and then reality set in — the isolation — and the father went nuts. My mom groaned like a sick animal from the divan at the scene when Shelley Duvall sneaks into his writing room and peeks at his novel and sees that he has been typing “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” for months.
“Girls, turn it off. I can’t watch. I simply can’t watch,” Mom said.
Dad’s next project after his second novel, Black Ink, didn’t happen was Stylebook, a computer program built to run on your writing, to improve your writing grammatically and stylistically. It was a genius idea. In 1984. When he began it. But it was starting to drag on with no end in sight. My dad hired some high schooler in New Jersey to build the software for Stylebook, and this kid, whom he called “the kid,” ended up making tens of thousands of dollars working for my dad. He went off to college with every dime my dad scraped together and the program never ran properly. Some company offered my dad $300,000 for his research, but he felt this was peanuts compared with what it was going to do on the open market, so he declined this offer. Stylebook was an earnest attempt to make money and get Mom off his back and get back to writing. I was told this is the kiss of death, doing something in order to “get back to the writing.” When you start doing this you’re [expletive], you have to stay on the writing always and do whatever you need to concurrently. I was told, “Never do anything in order to write. Don’t take a job, don’t even take a shower in order to write. You’ll never get to the writing. You write.” Dad was the person who told me this.
Stylebook was starting to drive Mom crazy. I knew he was going to get it handed to him. I saw him as a tragic hero. Like all tragic characters, he was trying to do the impossible — write novels, sell novels, make money, keep the drinking under control, get the cracked wife some help, take care of four kids. Like all tragic heroes he had a fundamental lack of self-awareness. Tragic characters don’t go to therapy, read self-help, do juice fasts or see psychics. They go blind, they’re banished from the kingdom, they hear ghosts. But they are good, noble in their pursuits, they just make bad decisions, have errors in judgment. He became increasingly saddening, if that’s a correct term. Some people are maddening, Dad was saddening. If Mom kicked him out would he be able to avoid the kind of solitary, elderly poverty that Grandma Darst, Crazy Kate, wound up in?