Monday, May 9, 2011

Book review: Author's quest to know lost dad revives tales of sadness


Almost a Family:‭ ‬A Memoir,‭ ‬by John Darnton‭; ‬Knopf‭; ‬348‭ ‬pp.‭; ‬$27.95


By Bill Williams


John Darnton was‭ ‬11‭ ‬months old when his father,‭ ‬Barney Darnton,‭ ‬was killed during World War II while reporting on the war in the Pacific for‭ ‬The New York Times.

Almost a Family is a meticulous reconstruction of the lives of the Darnton family‭ – ‬the author,‭ ‬his older brother and their mom and dad.‭ ‬The book is,‭ ‬by turns,‭ ‬illuminating,‭ ‬gripping and sad.

Growing up,‭ ‬the author knew little about his dad,‭ ‬beyond the idealistic portrait painted by his mother.‭ ‬The younger Darnton eventually followed in his dad’s footsteps when he,‭ ‬too,‭ ‬became a reporter at‭ ‬The New York Times.‭ ‬After the author retired several years ago,‭ ‬he decided to find out more about the mysterious man who was his father.

Darnton knew that his dad had been killed by friendly fire when a U.S.‭ ‬pilot mistook an American warship for a Japanese vessel.‭ ‬A bomb fragment pierced Barney’s skull,‭ ‬killing him.‭ ‬Darnton chronicles his dogged effort to learn as much as possible about that ill-fated day.‭

He even hired a private detective to track down the son of the now-deceased U.S.‭ ‬pilot,‭ ‬but the son knew nothing about the errant bombing.‭ ‬After considerable research,‭ ‬the author concluded that his dad’s death resulted from a‭ “‬tragic series of blunders both in the air and on water.‭”

Darnton learned that his dad was a heavy drinker and a womanizer,‭ ‬swept up in the bohemian culture of the Roaring Twenties.

He was shocked when he discovered that his mom and dad were not married,‭ ‬despite what everyone had believed.‭ ‬When they met,‭ ‬each was already married.‭ ‬They both got a divorce,‭ ‬but stopped short of marrying each other.

The book excels in its discussion of memory,‭ ‬alcoholism and the craft of investigative reporting,‭ ‬tied together by the author’s agile prose and smooth storytelling.‭ ‬Reporters who spend their careers writing breaking news stories often stumble when they try to write a book,‭ ‬but Darnton’s account is a notable exception.

Not long after Barney died,‭ ‬Darnton’s mother got a job as a reporter in‭ ‬The New York Times Washington bureau,‭ ‬and later became the newspaper’s woman’s editor.‭ ‬But the author was mystified by his mom’s increasingly bizarre behavior.‭ ‬Meals were missed,‭ ‬and the house started to fall apart.‭ ‬When a neighborhood boy suggested that Darnton’s mom was a drunk,‭ ‬he refused to believe it.

Eventually,‭ ‬Mom hit bottom and sought help from Alcoholics Anonymous.‭ ‬She pledged never to drink again,‭ ‬and apparently kept that promise.‭ ‬She later died of cancer at age‭ ‬61.‭ ‬The author’s vivid description of the devastation of alcoholism is pitch-perfect.‭ ‬He describes the night mom was suffering from withdrawal-induced convulsions,‭ ‬and a doctor instructed him over the phone to press a spoon into her mouth so she would not swallow her tongue.

Almost a Family reminds one of another recent memoir,‭ ‬The Memory Palace,‭ ‬because‭ ‬of each book’s honest discussion of the fragility of memory.‭

Darnton scrupulously reports only what he can verify.‭ ‬He displays the best instincts of an investigative reporter,‭ ‬tracking down people who might have known his dad and poring over old newspaper files and government records.

As a fascinating aside,‭ ‬Darnton describes his career at‭ ‬The New York Times,‭ ‬starting as a copyboy and eventually including assignments in Africa and Poland,‭ ‬which led to a Pulitzer Prize for foreign reporting.‭

Despite the irresistible pull of this memoir,‭ ‬I have two minor reservations.‭ ‬Darnton recalls his days as a youthful‭ “‬troublemaker‭” ‬who stole cars,‭ ‬was kicked out of prep school,‭ ‬and lost his virginity in a whorehouse in Mexico.‭ ‬But he says nothing about the morality or appropriateness of his wanton behavior,‭ ‬nor does he voice any regrets.

In addition,‭ ‬Darnton’s frank discussion of his parents‭’ ‬sexual,‭ ‬alcoholic escapades raises the touchy question of what is fair game in memoir writing when mom and dad are dead and cannot offer a rebuttal.‭

Nevertheless,‭ ‬Almost a Family is a richly detailed account of one family’s tumultuous intersection with culture,‭ ‬addiction,‭ ‬war and changing values in American society.
‭ ‬
Bill Williams is a free-lance writer in West Hartford,‭ ‬Conn.,‭ ‬and a former editorial writer for The Hartford Courant.‭ ‬He is a member of the National Book Critics Circle and can be reached at‭ ‬billwaw@comcast.net.

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