Thursday, January 19, 2017
Allan Gurganus's story is dense with weighty significance. It has a subtitle ("Something About My Father"), a dedication (to William Maxwell), and three subsections that are numbered and titled: "1. At War, at Home," "2. My Elder Son," and "3. Addendum." The three sections alternate narrators: two are by the oldest son, Brian, at different time periods, and the middle section is narrated by the father. All this is in service of a story of the midcentury generation gap. The father is a war hero (World War II) who was photographed with Betty Grable and involved in the fire-bombing of Dresden. By contrast, the father's oldest son is gay. It's a lot of fancy footwork for a point that now seems almost trite: the militarist father with a gay son and the father can't stand the shame. In turn, the son hates the father in a deeply conflicted way. I did like the way the second section moved. There was a lot of tiresome set-up work in the first, but maybe it pays off with the second. Part of my problem really is that I never have much sympathy for these fathers, and here I don't think we're even supposed to. The story title itself belittles the father's glories, and Dresden is the giveaway. At the time the story was written and published (five years after Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five), Dresden had become a symbol for the mistakes in the war made by the Allies—or the barbarities, as there are probably people who continue to defend Dresden. When we arrive inside the father's head in the second section, his self-pity and aggrieved tone don't make him any more sympathetic, but it feels authentic. You get a sense of his bewildered confusion about what the world turned into after the war. And Brian is done perhaps as well as anyone of the time could. There is a palpable discomfort with his sexuality, however, with so many clichés of the caustic homosexual queen attached to him. It makes the story itself feel strangely imbued with shame. At this point, the interest for me is more social-historical than anything. I don't know Gurganus at all beyond this, but there's an interesting anecdote about the story. In 1974, Gurganus was studying with John Cheever at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. Cheever submitted the story to the New Yorker without Gurganus's knowledge. It was his first published story. It's not exactly Walt Whitman and Ralph Waldo Emerson, but nice way to start a career.
The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Short Stories, ed. Tobias Wolff