Soon after his father moved out, Paul acquired his first girlfriend, Kimberly Beebe, pronounced bee-bee. She was a soft-faced maidenly sort of sweet girl who wore calico dresses with interesting rick-rack around what would have been her bustline. She was modest and friendly, and in addition, conveniently for Paul, she was one of those rare girls in seventh grade who, due to some weirdness in their social wiring, attached themselves to the Dungeons-and-Dragons crowd, which was where Paul was. Paul had won Kimberly from her previous attachment to Hart McCarthy by writing her long letters in runic code about his cats and his D&D characters. Obviously his wooing away of Kimberly was treachery but Hart McCarthy was too weedy and underpowered to do anything about it. Both Hart& and Paul had ghostly mustaches.
Byers tells the story of a young man’s life by a series of brief interactions with the “other fathers” he encounters, his own father being absent from his life. For that matter, he’s pretty much on his own, as his mother is perpetually distracted by the antics of an acting-out sister.
His first girlfriend, mentioned above in the opening paragraph of the story, provides the usual introduction to love – except when she disappears from school, and, following a tense phone conversation with her father, Paul discovers the family has left town: “had neither the courage nor the wits to find out where she had gone, though her father’s voice would be stuck in his ear forever….” It’s a sad end to a boy’s first encounter with romance, particularly given the father who has also disappeared.
Other girls, with other fathers, follow. The fathers aren’t important figures in the relationships; he recalls them in one-encounter vignettes. But there is a curiosity, I think, in his evaluation of these men, including one who offered bland encouragement when Paul told him he was interested in the film industry: “Which seemed a miraculous kindness even then.” I read this as a sad indication of how starved the teenager was for any kind of affirmation.
While the parade of girlfriends and fathers forms the structure of the piece, there’s a deeper theme there: who we are stems from where we came from:
…only Americans could be truly cool, that only Americans, with their country marked by the sins of slavery and genocide, could manage to be at once materially oriented and still propelled by a divine music, the sin having entered into the soul of every American and so keeping a certain rhythm moving there. Every American heard it though surprisingly few had noticed or could describe such a thing. Whereas the French and Italians were merely stylish and having given up on the divine had nowhere left to go that was beyond nothingness. Americans knew something else existed, there was a ghost in everything that only Americans were haunted by.
It’s interesting that I’m reading another book right now (Rebecca Makkai’s The Borrowers) that works with this theme.
In adulthood, Paul’s father contacts him and the two have a quick reunion that falls under the heading of “too little, too late:”
On the other hand, what do you say to a boy in such a condition? If you are the father who has left that boy, and want to make amends, but nothing you say could possibly matter? As Mr. Lake had remained silent then, he remained silent now, until he finally managed, having crawled as far from Paul as he could get in the front seat of the car – “Maybe – just – just – wait, maybe, try something else…” – shrugging, stammering, not wanting to take this on, not knowing how much of it might be his pain and how much rightly his son’s, not wanting to know. His father, undone by his own weakness, what a subject that would be…and what a vision Paul suddenly had…the story of his own father’s life, of the summer the sad bastard moved away –and that had been the moment Paul started shouting, it was not something he cared to think about much, it had not seemed his voice. Honestly it is still hard for him to admit any of this, how angry he still was, how still like a boy.
We follow Paul to the point of his own fatherhood, and he looks back through a retrospectoscope and realizes a few things about those other fathers, his daughter, and himself.
There’s nothing really surprising here, least of all the epiphanic ending, and I didn’t find it particularly engaging or moving. That concerns me a bit (about my reading ability, that is) since Byers is something of a Big Deal. I do find the structure – the use of fathers as cameos in Paul’s life – interesting, and the choice of filmmaking as his calling effectively emphasizes his viewpoint. Byers discusses how it came about in his One Story Q&A.