Honestly though, reading books and watching DVDs is not exactly new territory for me. Activities that take place in my apartment and which I can engage in alone are kind of what I’m all about and, as such, one could argue that doing more of that is closer to the problem than the solution. So, in a true effort to catch up with culture, I got my ass out to the movies. I went to see Don’t Come Knocking, the new picture directed by Wim Wenders.
I’m not going to spend much time on Wenders. The man is great. He puts art above being recognized as an auteur. I have no doubt that one day I will entertain you with a laundry list of his virtues, but not right now. Today I need to attempt to begin to approach dealing with the prowess of the man who wrote the movie.
There are different kinds of paternity. You have your father and your father figures and then, as we have touched on before, you have those people whose brilliance propels your craft—the fathers of your art. Much in the way that I imagine many American writers of the Twentieth Century felt when a Russian named Vladimir Nabokov came to this country and wrote in our language with more elegance, nuance, and sensitivity than any of them could, it maddens me that I cannot be Sam Shepard.
His innate understanding of human nature, his ability to casually and subtlety draw you into the darkest of emotional realms and then restore you with something more sophisticated and less reassuring than mere levity, his mastery in portraying the intricacies of relationships running the gamut from familial intimacy to remote acquaintance, his nail on the head when you didn’t even see the hammer dialogue…this man’s genius overpowers me. All I want is to be exactly that good.
What happens to a lot of people whose parents, especially fathers, were absentee, alcoholic, or abusive is that they learn to limit their needs. They…we become utterly self-sufficient. We avoid affording people the opportunity to disappoint us. We are loyal, dependable, and trustworthy because we know how it feels to be jacked around and we do not want to become perpetrators of that sad, familiar bullshit. Because we have been let down so supremely, more often than not we must overcome our emotional malnutrition through external achievement. A lot of us have to be the best.
How nebulous that ultimate superlative is. When I was a kid my nickname was three-going-on-thirty-five. I was precocious, poised, and even more serious than I am these days. I was not one of those kids whose family wondered how I might turn out, what I might be when I was all grown up. I was basically there. And since I can’t remember, everyone in my life knew I would be a writer. Everyone except me. When I was twelve years old I took an objective, unforgiving look at my fiction and decided I didn’t have the stuff. I was nowhere near as good as the writers I was reading—Orwell, Hammett, Conan Doyle, Fitzgerald—and it seemed clear I never would be. Right then and there I started brainstorming alternative career paths for my future. I was twelve.
Another thing that happens is we eventually figure out that we put up with the absentee or alcoholic or abusive behavior because we were conditioned to do so. My father’s father told him that he would never amount to anything. He said it often enough and with such accompanying force that my father started believing it. I imagine my grandfather did this because he saw something special in his son—a rare combination of charisma, good looks, a quick mind, and a sense of humor far more sophisticated, I’m betting, than his own. Instead of being proud that his child would probably go further than he had in the world, he did everything he could to tear him down.
The next thing we put together is that we’ve been had. And we get very, very angry. As does anyone who’s been made the fool. But everyone handles this anger in a different way. My dad was determined to contradict his father’s prediction and measured success with the most obvious of American yardsticks. He wanted to make a lot of money and sleep with many women. And he did. Unfortunately for me, being a parent didn’t rate very high in this catalogue of accomplishments. So the beat goes on.
This torturous cycle is beautifully depicted in Don’t Come Knocking. Shepard plays Howard, an over the hill, has-been hero of Hollywood westerns. On a shoot in Monument Valley, Howard rides his horse into the fading sun and continues riding right off the set. Completely burnt out, he’s so burdened by his identity that he’s trying to lose it. He Sullivan’s Travels it across the Southwest and ends up at his mother’s house, who, with her claustrophobic acceptance and reassurance, quietly evokes every sick link in the chain of events that must have prefigured the mess Howard has become. (Hello, Eva Marie Saint, you’ve still got it!) She reminds him that he has a son, a fact he’s failed to retain for the last twenty-some years, and sends him on his way to find the boy…in his father’s car.
Howard is less the main character of this film than a set piece and the action hangs on his disintegration. How could it be any other way when the lives of all the other characters are influenced only by his absence. By the time he shows up, it feels distinctly too late. Even if it’s not, how could he possibly know what to do? He’s stalled the maturation process indefinitely and he’s not in Neverland anymore. This is most gloriously clear when Howard proposes to Doreen, the mother of his son, that his big mistake was leaving her behind. He tells her they should get married. He can’t talk to his son; all he knows how to do is cling to women. In a speech that made me applaud, all by myself, in the middle of a movie, Jessica Lange shines like a diamond schooling Howard on how hugely he’s lost the plot. It’s just so good!
Don’t expect any answers here. But, let me tell you, the questions posed are invaluable. What brought Howard to his children? (Did you really think there’d only be one?) Is it enough that he showed up? Will they know each other? How? Can the cycle be broken?
I haven’t spoken to my father in just about two years. For as long as I have been legally considered an adult, this is how it’s gone. When we’re talking, we talk every day. When we’re not it goes on that way for months or years. Sometimes you don’t want to see your parents for the people they are. Instead of telling my father what his behavior was doing to me, I withdrew. Instead of demanding an apology, I would agree to pretend that horrible things were never said…until it all happened again and I withdrew, again.
At long last, I’m hip to the routine. I am definitely in the angry phase. The best thing I can think to do with my anger is to get it out. So when I got an email from my dad the other day inviting me to pretend and forget, I chose to confront. For the first time in my life, I told him our problems weren’t typical or amorphous but a direct result of his alcoholism, depression, and his choice to do nothing about either. I felt both liberated and insolent. Am I breaking the cycle? I don’t know.
I do know that I don’t want my life to be the way it was any longer. This means I have to buck up and get used to emotionally charged confrontations. It also means accepting that I can’t use anyone else’s yardstick to tell me how good I am. Being exactly like Sam Shepard, or Nabokov for that matter, is not relevant, necessary, or reasonable—even if it were remotely possible, which it is also not. I will only ever write like Hillery. All I need to be concerned with is improving the Hillery style.
I have to say, riding the bus—it sure ain’t free.