Let’s get one thing straight before we begin — my father, the protagonist of the book you are about to read, was a horses’ ass. He referred to himself as a horse’s ass on two separate occasions during his last conversation, in the early morning hours of the last day of his life.
There are other phrases that are perhaps more descriptive, and I’d literally never heard him use “horse’s ass” before in any context, but that phrase will do as well as any other, to set the stage. Horse’s ass it is, the man was a horse’s ass.
I know that’s a judgmental and simplistic thing to say about your father, and a slightly self-hating thing for the old man to say about himself, but it is not inaccurate. In the context of that final conversation it was fitting. He was trying to explain why he’d been so rigid, and angry, and abusive. He was seeking understanding and forgiveness for the damage he’d done to his nearest and dearest. It was part of his attempt to make sense of things that made no sense, including his fatal condition, first diagnosed in an ER six days before he died.
Fatal conditions make no sense, whether we get the diagnosis six days, six months or six years before the fact. My father was at a psychological disadvantage, getting the deadly news only a few days before his kidneys shut down. From his deathbed in the hospital he asked the doctor if there were any restrictions on what he could eat. The doctor smiled and told him to eat whatever he wanted, if he felt like having a fatty pastrami sandwich, he should have no hesitation to order one. These small mercies were the best he was going to get at that point. He had no appetite in any case, a tube draining ugly looking fluid from his abdomen into a bulging bag at the side of his hospital bed.
Irv was this guy in his final hours, realizing too late that his life was over, understanding too late how he should have tried to live, instead of being the monster he often was. Irv was the guy who, on his deathbed, bonded instantly with a nurse who grasped his sense of humor and dignity and was moved by it. He was also the nineteen year-old Irv, bravely smiling in an oversized army hat in the official portrait he sent back to his parents in late 1942 and signed “Love, Sonny.” He was also a politically progressive hip-talking devotee of Lenny Bruce who could crack up a room full of smart people with his off-the cuff improvisations. It is fitting that I’m improvising this now, because that was an art my father practiced all the time I knew him. He was a lover of animals, a despiser of injustice, a fighter for the underdog. He was the eight year-old with the bad haircut and a smile like Moe from the Three Stooges, squatting down for the camera, his arms around his little brother and another kid. He was an idealist with a boundless interest in history and politics. He was also a horse’s ass.
Reducing a person to the sum of their faults is a mean and stupid thing to do. It was one of Irv’s specialities, but one I have tried never to adopt. The world is not black and white, nor are any of us that way. We all may cross a line from time to time, a line there is often no recrossing, but none of us are consistently one thing or another, of course, except for guys like Dick Cheney.
Even Dick Cheney, I suspect, is capable of feeling some version of love or empathy, even if he has the discipline never to act on those kinds of feelings. I don’t mean to mention Cheney in an introduction to my father, it just seemed preferable to pulling out the all-purpose rubber crutch of Hitler. You will hear too many references in the coming pages to the New York Times’ fucking Mr. Hitler as it is, what with Hitler’s forces overseeing the murder of virtually everybody on both sides of my family. Enough about that fuck, and Cheney too.
I spent more than a year writing down everything I could remember about my father. At a certain point early on his voice popped up, a bit indignant, to contest something I’d written about him. The skeleton of my father, I wrote, sat up in his grave to argue me out of something I was writing about him. I let him speak his mind. He was opinionated, I found, even in death. I went with the chat with my dead father that first day, reasoning that I could always cut the hokey device in the editing room.
Then the skeleton was back a few days later. His voice seemed important to telling his own story. I thought he had a right to participate in the only biography that would ever be written of this brilliant but unknown man. More than that, I found I enjoyed talking with him, looked forward to it as I fired up the computer to write. The skeleton even had a surprise for me now and then. We had many of the talks he would have enjoyed while he was alive, had he been capable of having them. He was an excellent conversationalist, even if virtually all of the more meaningful talks he and I had were adversarial in nature.
He tried to convince me, for example, for more than forty years, that I’d been an angry and viciously prosecutorial baby from day one, had stared at him accusingly from the crib, with my big, black, accusatory eyes. I tried to convince him of the insanity of that position, which only made him more determined to prove to me that our antagonism was all my doing. On his deathbed he took pains to let me know he understood he’d been wrong to keep doing that year after year after year. He added, touchingly, that he’d been aware of my many attempts over the years to reach out to him and that he deeply regretted he’d been too fucked up to reach back.
I bear the poor fucker no malice, truly. You will see in these pages the man, as three-dimensionally as I can flesh him out, and hear his voice spoken by the introspective, fairly laid back skeleton he is today. Creating a realistic, living portrait of my father and the times he lived through, the dilemmas he faced, the contradictions his life posed– these are my goals in writing this manuscript. Now my challenge is to rake through more than 875 pages of manuscript and find the 400 or so to polish into a compelling, page-turning second draft.
Beyond that, of course, the challenge is to turn the story into a winning book proposal, something to convince a corporate type to give an unknown sixty-one year old author an advance to finish writing the book. I know, I know, with that attitude what self-respecting corporate shill is going to pony up anything for my book? I know. My biggest challenge, outside of learning how to charm this indispensable type, will be to write the blurb, a 30 word masterpiece of copywriting that will sell the ambitious book I have been wrestling with for a year and a half now. Or at least get me into the decider’s office.
Fortunately for me, I now have the wind at my back. The wind, unfortunately for me, is the diagnosis of an eventually fatal disease, though it can often be cured, if not by a regime of IV steroids and immuno-suppressive drugs then with a kidney transplant. Of course, there is also dialysis. The point is, I have enhanced motivation to finish the book, is all I’m saying. I feel like I have several more books in me after this one and I’d like to get on with it. Plus, I need a job and I want to be a paperback writer, and so on.
As every jazz musician knows, as any marginally capable wanker with a Telecaster who has ever riffed over a ii-V vamp knows, you can’t really play a wrong note. I mean, obviously you can, you can play a note that is jarringly anharmonic. The point is, with the right adroitness of spirit you can use that wrong note to improvise something interesting sometimes, even if the note itself is wrong.
I love that moment of grace, when, with ineffable nonchalance, the misplayed note becomes an inspiration for a totally new idea. That moment is also my hope, and on one level something I learned from my father, along with many other invaluable lessons, even if the long course of study was not always without a terrible cost.