Writers have been writing about their families since forever. But two fine new books—one by newcomer Rafe Bartholomew, the other by literary lion Richard Ford—suggest that maybe it’s time to carve out a niche for a new sub-genre on the long shelf of Family Lit. Let’s call it Memoirs by Sons Who Grew Up to Become Writers and Wound Up Looking Back at Their Parents With a Fondness That Will Melt Your Heart.
Of the two, Bartholomew has the tougher selling job with me. That’s because his memoir, Two and Two: McSorley’s, My Dad, and Me, is spun around his experiences hanging around and then working alongside his bartender father, Geoffrey (known as Bart), in New York City’s oldest saloon. John McSorley opened the place in 1854, and his motto still hangs on the wall: Be Good or Be Gone. I used to drop by in the 1970s and ’80s, long before the place became another New York theme park for tourists, and given the way the surly waiters were constantly urging customers to drink up and order a new round, I thought the motto should have read: Be Drinking, Be Drunk, or Be Gone. As Bartholomew admits, “Half of New York City seems to know us as the bar where they kick you out when you stop drinking.” Also on offer were mediocre ale and bad food. I never became a fan, let alone a regular.
Bartholomew’s father, the son of an abusive alcoholic, came to New York in the 1970s full of dreams of making it as a writer, but after studying under Anthony Burgess and Kurt Vonnegut and producing a couple of unsold novels, he took a turn so many failed writers have taken—and became a quart-of-vodka-a-day drinker. Eventually he made his way to an A.A. meeting, where he met a twice-divorced woman battling snakes of her own. They got married and became that genuine rarity: 12-steppers who climbed aboard the wagon and stayed put.
Geoffrey also clung to his job as a bartender at McSorley’s, which became his counter-intuitive refuge. Though the place was undistilled temptation for a reforming alcoholic, it had a strange virtue: its owners and staff remained so true to John McSorley’s original vision that the place might as well have been frozen in amber. For Bartholomew père, the saloon became the still point in a turning, treacherous world. It took a federal court ruling in 1970 to force the owners to allow women to enter the bar for the first time.
Bartholomew fils dutifully mentions Joseph Mitchell’s famous 1940 New Yorker profile of the place, “The Old House at Home,” which was intended as high praise but winds up making the place sound like an adult daycare for Irish rummies. Mitchell, a North Carolinian who loved anything that smelled of Olde New York, was, like Bartholomew’s father, drawn to McSorley’s because it was a sanctuary. Bartholomew quotes an entry in Mitchell’s journal from the 1970s: “McSorley’s, middle of the afternoon, sit at table in the back and have a few mugs of ale and escape for a while from the feeling that the world is out of control and about to come to an end.” Mitchell was no stranger to such apocalyptic dread. He hadn’t published a word in a decade, and he was on intimate terms with feeling blocked, written out, washed up.
Two and Two is full of “characters” named Frank the Slob and Dead Eddie and Bunghole Thompson, but they’re far less interesting to me than the descriptions of the “mechanics” of working as a bartender. These passages, full of stress, physical punishment, rudeness, humor, and projectile vomiting, serve as a reminder that the act of working, especially at blue-collar jobs, is rich subject matter that too few writers explore. (See On Fire, Larry Brown’s superb memoir about working as a firefighter.) Another joy is the single chapter about Bartholomew’s mother—and her battle with cancer. Though Bartholomew’s bond with his father forms the meat of the book, these pages about his mother pack an emotional punch that makes the doings inside McSorley’s seem like child’s play.
Which is not an unfair description of what goes on there. Nowadays, police saw horses corral the tourists lined up to get into the place, which is no small source of dismay to Bartholomew and his father. “When half the tables inside McSorley’s on an average weeknight have Lonely Planet guides on them,” Bartholomew writes, “the place feels a little bit less like part of a neighborhood and instead starts to resemble a gimmick. Were we genuine McSorley’s barmen? Or just historical re-enactors playing dress-up in a tourist trap?” His father, who eventually won vindication by publishing two well-received volumes of poetry based on his life inside the Old House at Home, replies, “I don’t know. Feels like the whole business is changing.” For anyone devoted to McSorley’s ethos of constancy, change is the true killer.
Richard Ford’s memoir, Between Them: Remembering My Parents, isn’t spun around garrulous barroom characters. This book is so understated it’s nearly whispered, as Ford explores his remarkable devotion to parents who were, on the face of it, thoroughly unremarkable people.
His father, Parker Ford, was “a large man—soft, heavy-seeming, smiling widely as if he knew a funny joke.” He’s an Arkie with a seventh-grade education who travels the Deep South in a Ford selling laundry starch wholesale for the Faultless Company out of Kansas City. He’s frequently accompanied on the road by his wife, Edna, also an Arkie from “just a rural place” in the northwest corner of Arkansas, a vivacious, pretty woman who loves her husband. Their joint travels end when they have a surprise son, their only child, 15 years after their wedding. By now they’ve settled in Jackson, Miss., where the boy will grow up.
Between Them is sprinkled with question marks, with the words “maybe” and “possibly” and “might have” and (my favorite) “Imagine it. You have to, because there’s no other way…”— admissions that authorial imagination is the only way to fill in the inevitable gaps in the story of a married couple who led largely undocumented lives. When the novelist in Ford takes over, the book hits its high notes. Here’s Ford imagining—or possibly remembering—his father making a sales call: “His customers occupied murky, back-street warehouses with wooden loading docks and tiny stifling offices that smelled of feed by the bushel.” And here’s the son imagining his father alone on the road:
And how was it for him? Driving, driving alone? Sitting in those hotel rooms, in lobbies, reading a strange newspaper in the poor lamplight; taking a walk down a street in the evening, smoking? Listening to the radio in the sweep and hum of an oscillating fan. Then turning in early to the noise of katydids and switch-yards, car doors closing and voices on the street laughing into another night. How was it being a father this way—having a wife, renting a house in a town where they knew almost no one and had no friends, coming home only weekends, as if this were home?
Maybe the most remarkable thing about this quiet book is the way its focus remains on its two subjects, never on its author. Though Ford is present on many pages, he is rarely the center of attention. So this is not, mercifully, another account of a writer’s beginnings. Ford mentions glancingly that an only child “absorbs a great deal,” and that his has been “a life of noticing and being a witness. Most writers’ lives are.” He’s intent on trying to understand what existed between his parents, and only secondarily on what existed between him and them. He writes: “Incomplete understanding of our parents’ lives is not a condition of their lives. Only ours. If anything, to realize you know less than all is respectful, since children narrow the frame of everything they’re a part of.” Ford’s refusal to narrow the frame is beyond selfless; it is generous. This comes through when Ford reports, without regret, that his largely absent father did not teach him to read and never read to him. Given the paucity of reading material and introspection in the Ford household, it’s astonishing that Richard would grow up to become a celebrated writer. Or maybe it’s not so astonishing. In his memoir about growing up dirt poor in south Georgia, Childhood: The Biography of a Place, Harry Crews noted that the only things to read in his house were The Bible and the Sears, Roebuck catalog. And so he made up stories about the “beautiful” people he saw in the catalog, and that was how he began to become a celebrated writer. The quality of early influences, it turns out, is less important than the quality of the person they influence.
Like Bartholomew, Ford does some of his most affecting writing when he turns his attention to his mother. After his father suffers a second, fatal heart attack in 1960 when Ford is 15, his mother’s life begins to branch outward for the first time. She takes on a string of jobs—with a company that makes school pictures, as a rental agent in a new high-rise apartment building, as night cashier at a hotel, as an admitting clerk in the emergency room at the University of Mississippi hospital. She acquires a boyfriend, a married man who treats her well. She travels to Mexico, to Banff, to “various warm islands.” She has always been difficult, but her son’s love for her never wavers, and, like Bartholomew, he is there for her when she fights a losing battle with cancer. Yet there is no denying that there’s a gulf between this country woman and her ambitious literary son. This comes to light after he has published his second novel and is teaching at Princeton and she asks him, “When are you going to get a job and get started?”
Ford, to his credit, does not express dismay over the question. Instead of judging others’ lives, he writes, “We must all make the most of the lives we find.” Richard Ford and Rafe Bartholomew have both done this, and they’ve both done it beautifully.