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My Father, Dancing
Broyards collection of short stories, My Father, Dancing, is so splendidly
nuanced that one is tempted to overstate the books low-keyed charms. In this era of
blockbuster bestsellers and publishing "sensations," the small pleasures of
Broyards stories are to be savored. The collection is dedicated "in memory of
my father," and five of the eight stories are focused on father/daughter
relationships. Its no secret that Bliss Broyards father was Anatole Broyard,
for many years a respected book reviewer and essayist for The New York Times.
He died of cancer in 1990 at the age of 70. His posthumously published Greenwich Village
memoir, Kafka Was the Rage, has become something of a literary
background isnt necessary to appreciate Bliss Broyards stories, but knowing of
her fathers illness (which he himself wrote about during the last year of his life)
unquestionably adds poignancy to the title story, which concerns the final hours of a
young womans dying father. "My Father, Dancing" is narrated by the
daughter, Kate. Her vivid memories of the agile man who taught her a love of music
and dancing are contrasted with the morphine-addled cancer patient with whom she now feels
disconnected and helpless.
Anyone who has lost
a parent or loved one to cancer will know the wrenching endgame scenes that Broyard
dramatizes here - the delirium, the patients inability to recognize family members,
the confused attempts to escape the hospital by tearing loose from the drug and feeding
tubes. Yet, none of this is pushed too hard, the sentiment is never overplayed. The
quiet moments in "My Father, Dancing" are suffused with a beatific tenderness:
After my mother
and the nurse left the room, I sat on the edge of my fathers bed and held his hand
between mine, so that my hands were flat and covered his completely, front and back. His
hands didnt seem so large anymore. The skin had the softness that babies and old
people share. I thought, Here is something useful I can do. I can protect this hand.
The fathers and daughters in Broyards stories
take on different names and personas, different careers and psychological hangups.
Sometimes they share secrets, as in "Mr. Sweetly Indecent," when a
twenty-something daughter spies her father kissing a woman hes having an affair
with. "We can pretend that it didnt even happen if thats what you
want," he tells his daughter. The story charts the readjustment of her moral compass
in regards to her parents marriage and the dubious men of her own relationships.
The father in
"At the Bottom of the Lake" is an emotionally aloof New York attorney
named Frank Baldwin. His daughter Lucy has taken on the project of renovating the family
cabin with the help of her fiance. The cabin is a source of nostalgia and pride for Lucy,
and her hope is to convince her father and stepmother to once again become fixtures in the
lake community. But a dinner party at the cabin deteriorates into drunken recriminations,
during which even the reading of a Yeats poem becomes grounds for accusations and
Along with the title
story, one of the strongest pieces in Broyards collection is "The Trouble with
Mr. Leopold." The daughter this time is Celia, a junior enrolled at Woodbridge
Country Day, a private school in Connecticut. Assigned to write a movie review for the
film Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, she enlists the help of her father, "who
made his living as a writer and worked at home." The father here is an
intellectual version of Ozzie Nelson, somewhat bumbling and distracted, but solicitous
with his daughter. When Celia mentions that the assignment is for her teacher, Mr.
Leopold, her father responds: "That pompous fool? Why didnt you say so?"
And he proceeds to write the movie review for Celia. Mr. Leopold grades it a C-plus with
the comment, "You broke the golden rule of review writing - never reveal a
surprise ending." Celias father is livid - "How in hell could he possibly
have given that paper a C-plus?" - and his authorial pride is bruised.
The humor of the
story isnt forced, and the dialogue never spills over into sitcom territory. Mr.
Leopold is an odd and mildly sinister character, a former "image consultant,"
who offers the young girls in his class "private" office sessions in which he
advises them on fashion and comportment. "Show me your knees," he demands of
Celia, and then he inspects her legs to determine what style of stockings - patterned or
opaque - she is best suited for. This ritual, for which the girls are lined up outside of
Mr. Leopolds office door, has "a whiff of perversion" in Celias
opinion. When her father learns whats going on, his animosity is further inflamed
and he at last has the moral ammunition to strike back at the teacher.
Two other stories in
the collection, "A Day in the Country" and "Snowed in," again involve
a student at Woodbridge Country Day. But rather than Celia, were introduced to a
young girl named Lily, whose father is an orchestra conductor for an opera company. In
"A Day in the Country," Lily is in the seventh grade, and the story - perhaps in
a conscious nod to Renoirs short film of the same name - combines a languid country
idyll with intimations of seduction. A friend of Lilys mother is pursued by a friend
of Lilys father, and Lily herself sips beer in the woods with her friends and plays
at a kissing game.
In the story
"Snowed In," Lily is four years older, and a winters afternoon with
friends at a house with no parents inevitably descends into drunkenness and watching porno
videos. Lily passes out on a bed. A boy who had been crudely flirting with her all
afternoon finds her unconscious and removes her clothes. Lily wakes up as the boy is
fondling her: "...she saw that what was about to happen wasnt something that
could be turned on or off at whim. And once she saw that, she couldnt look
In" is one of three "fatherless" pieces in the collection, along with
"Loose Talk" and "Ugliest Faces." In these stories, we meet
adolescents and young college-age women who are unmoored from protective family ties,
overwhelmed by the urgency of their sexuality, yet disconnected from the men they live
with or meet unbidden. "Loose Talk" is a Boston-based story about a woman
named Pilar whose relationship with live-in lover Max is crumbling around her as she
romanticizes a nonexistent intimacy with a rock singer whom she once met briefly and who
now telephones her occasionally in the middle of the night.
Faces," if not the finest story in the collection, is perhaps the most disturbing.
Broyard masterfully balances the comical and the grotesque. Bridget is a Boston college
student romantically involved with her former English professor. One night after a party,
Bridget is driving home with a friend when their car hits a drunken fraternity student
named Spike. He walks away from the accident, but not before kissing Bridget on the lips
and exchanging phone numbers with her. Attracted and repelled at the same time,
Bridget finds herself obsessing about Spike and his medical condition. She also feels
compelled to publicly confess - at a faculty dinner party, no less - her involvement in a
hit-and-run accident. Her inability to leave well enough alone lands her by the end of the
story in bed with Spike and filled with self-loathing.
Broyards work lacks the slick polish and manic brilliance of Lorrie Moores
recent bestselling story collection, Birds of America, there is a subdued richness to My
Father, Dancing that is satisfying on its own terms. Broyards
stories are a triumph of sensibility - she is a writer with a fine Chekhovian sense of
everyday lives filled not just with quiet desperation, but also quiet joy and quiet
- Bob Wake