Howard Cunnell writes in Fathers & Sons, “None of us have dads – not Johann or Steve or Ashley or me. None of us have dads and all of us are looking for something. Was there a connection? There had to be. It was Steve who gave me On the Road, and what are Sal and Dean searching for after all if not for their fathers – absent in death and life? If you didn’t have a dad who loved you, or who beat you when he came home drunk, I’m not stupid, then you were always looking for him, or something else . . .”.
To each generation its dysfunction and rebellion: in Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons, the liberal-minded landowner, Nicholas Kirsanov, struggles to understand his radicalised son, Arcady, who returns home during the summer with his university friend, Bazarov the Nihilist, who challenges and rejects the old Czarist order. Politics and culture are their battleground. Father and Son by poet and critic Edmund Gosse, describes his childhood in Devon with his zoologist, Calvinist father after the death of his bluestocking mother. It is “the record of the struggle between two temperaments, two consciences, and two epochs” – the son rebels against his father’s fundamentalist religion. In Fathers & Sons, Howard Cunnell asks, “What’s it like to wake up to a world without love?” as he is confronted by the complex politics of gender and identity when his step daughter, Jay, reveals s/he is transgender.
A scuba diving instructor and contractor on a building site, Howard Cunnell and his older brother were brought up by their pretty young mother in 1970s Eastbourne, then a National Front stronghold. Abandoned by her husband, the single mother had to return home to her parents from London, (serving in the Royal Artillery during World War Two, her veteran father was rescued off the beach at Dunkirk), before moving into a small house with sunflowers in the garden.
Literary outsiders turned mainstream classics Hemingway, Carver and Kerouac were Cunnell’s masculine role models as grew up. He dreamed of freedom and got pissed in the pub with his mates.
Cunnell had a hole in his soul left by his absent father. By 1988 he was drinking and angry and living in a squat in Vauxhall with his girlfriend Robin. “Her long hair braided in a thick dark-blonde plait . . . wearing a soft red-checked shirt, canvas trousers and DMs” she was “kindness and generosity” personified. But in 1997 he left her for Araba who already had one child, Jay. He has a daughter, Rose, with her.
His descriptions of family life are fluid and strong. The episodic narrative jumps back and forth between past and present; from seaside town to capital city. Memories are punctuated by Pinter-pauses. He struggles with drinking, ends up in Mexico, and returns home to Brixton to try to be a husband and a father.
“As I read the story about the little boy meeting the monster that lives inside him, before returning to love, my monster, the one that lives inside me is quiet. For once not raging and filling my head with his noise. Making me punch holes in the walls. I’m surprised the monster is quiet. When I’m around the kids he’s usually busy. Telling me that I’ll be a shit dad, like I was a shit kid and am a shit man.”
Cunnell is loving and supportive as teenage Jay has treatment to become a man, though s/he goes on self-harming with knives. There are family therapy sessions at the Tavistock Centre. The young ones sometimes have fun.
“I go downstairs where they are standing in the hall, smiling. Dusty wears a silver mini-dress, silver shoes with little buckles, and white tights. Her hair is silver.
Jay’s air is jet black, black as the night sky, and swept back in a big quiff. He’s dressed all in black. Black leather jacket and black boots.
Rose comes down the stairs singing and carrying a battered pair of steel-toecapped DMs. She’s wearing an old Levi’s black cord jacket that used to belong to me (decorated with her badges: The Clash, Trojan Records, Haile Selassie) over a long black dress she’s borrowed from her mother. Ghanaian Gye Nyame earrings, red lipstick, dyed black hair in plaits.”
He finds out that Jason, the father he had never known, a dodgy character, has died. He meets his half-sister and half-brother: a drinker – like father, like son. There is resolution and peace.
I opened Fires and read the Carver poem again. Love is what Carver’s people – who are all of us – are looking for though they don’t always know it or find it. Love in a face you can’t quite remember or horses that come to you out of the fog.
Cunnell has succeeded in writing a deeply felt, intimate, honest and restrained memoir in lucid prose. As he explores masculinity and the family, he pays homage to the master of writing by omission, “Papa” Hemingway, whose “iceberg theory” is worth reiterating: Write about what you know, but don’t write all that you know; grace comes from understatement; create feelings from the fewest details needed; forget the flamboyant. Fathers & Sons is a memorable and manly classic.
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