As was the style in those days, the man left the sweat and blood of giving birth to his wife in the doctor’s care and sat in the waiting room reading “Life on the Mississippi.” At the point in Mark Twain’s story when old Darnell was filled with bullets during the feud with the Watsons, the doctor entered the waiting room and announced, “You’ve got another boy.” The reader made a note of the occasion in the margin of the book. Decades later, John Darnton, the boy born that day and the man who wrote this memoir, discovered the book and note.
The discovery of the note about his own birth in the handwriting of his father was a mythical event for the author because he never knew his father. Byron Darnton was killed before John was a year old.
This decade, so far, has been terrible for the literary genre of the memoir. Too many memoirists relating insignificant stories while being overly confessional in an effort to compensate for the inadequate narrative. Or the stories, perhaps significant, are not well written because the author is not a writer or a storyteller, merely a memoirist.
“Almost a Family” suffers from neither of these pitfalls. It is a meaningful story of loss, search, and discovery, brilliantly told by an insightful, honest writer.
The primary figure of the narrative is the father, the character who leaves the stage first. As is often the case, the absent person is the one most present. “Not having a father present didn’t mean not having a father,” Mr. Darnton writes. “There wasn’t just an absence in my life. There was the ‘presence’ of an absence, and that presence, along with snippets of information . . . filled my imagination.”
Byron, known as Barney, a war correspondent for The New York Times, inhabits every page of the book, whether he is on or off stage in the narrative. Omnipresent, however, is not the same as being known or understood. Barney hovers just outside the range of the reader’s understanding. This makes us all the more in sync with the author as he travels and researches to find and know the father he never met. We come to our own understanding at the instant the writer-son himself lays bare the myths about his father.
After Byron was killed by shrapnel in a tragic case of friendly fire, John’s mother, nicknamed Tootie, was left alone with two small boys. As the only parent, she had terrible burdens to bear: provide a living, rear and educate two boys, and, above all, maintain the myths of the family. For a while, it seemed she was up to the task. Then, through the author’s young eyes, his reluctant observations gradually break through his boyish wishful thinking. We discover that Tootie was more unknowable, more mysterious, and more absent than was the dead father.
For this reader, the accounts of the author’s childhood and youth are the least engaging parts of the narrative, the only time the story slows down. Yet there are important and redeeming moments. There’s the cavalier dismissal in the young boy’s mind when he breaks valuable vases with a carelessly thrown ball in the home of a stranger who is caring for him and his brother because their mother has left a failed business and moved to another city. She has left her sons behind ostensibly to finish the school year. When the broken vases are discovered, the resulting shame in the boy stands in for his feelings about his broken family. Shame over shattered ceramics is easier to bear than the shame of his mother and the fractured lives of her children.
“Almost a Family”
As a teenager with little or no parental supervision, he began a series of adventures. He hitchhiked back and forth from coast to coast. The recounted perils of risk taking, leaving his private school dorm after hours, stealing cars, hopping freights, and vomiting on a borrowed tuxedo might seem gratuitous if it were not for moments of reflection.
“Somewhere along the line, I had evolved the philosophical notion that experience was all. The importance of adventures was in the living of them. Added up, they would build character and endow understanding. Each bizarre encounter, each brush with danger, each passage through yet another crazy set of circumstances was another tale to tell, a notch in my belt. In lost moments, waiting by a deserted roadside, with my gut rumbling from hunger, I’d remember all the rides I’d had up to that point, as if they made a significant pattern. I’d reconfigure my life on the road, summarizing it like the biographical bullets I used to read on the back cover of paperbacks.”
The story speeds ahead when Mr. Darnton, after years in other newspaper assignments, steps into his father’s shoes and becomes a war correspondent for The Times and heads off to Africa to cover war and intrigue. The danger of hopping a speeding freight train in his youth was the baby step toward knowing his adventurous father. Although he claims he was careful and avoided putting himself into dangerous situations in Africa (then Poland during the revolution), we smell the danger of what he’s doing as if the pages of the book have been infused by it. We are happy when he and his family make it back to the United States, and he is able to reflect and write this book.
In addition to the careful journalistic research in this memoir, the key to its success is the author’s ability to observe himself as he negotiates the treacherous waters of memory, even when he traveled to the rain forest of New Guinea where his father died. There he met an old native man who was present at his father’s death. After lengthy negotiations were completed through translators about what contributions would be made to the village, “I felt a tug on my shirt and turned. It was Alexander, the old man who had witnessed the bombing. He gestured for me to follow and we walked down the beach until he stopped. He pointed to a spot in the sand. We did not have a translator — and besides, there was nothing to say — so we just looked in silence for a long while at the place where my father’s body had lain.”
This was not the end, just the beginning of the end, of the author’s search for truth in the myths about his absent, but very present, father.
John Darnton is a former summer resident of Bridgehampton.
Gary Reiswig is the author of “The Thousand Mile Stare: One Family’s Journey Through the Struggle and Science of Alzheimer’s” and “Water Boy,” a novel. He lives in Springs.