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If a crappy coming of age is a lucky lottery ticket for the would-be memoirist, then Anna Cypra Oliver has hit the jackpot. Given a self-absorbed-hippie-turned-fundamentalist-Christian for a mother, a pair of drunken and abusive stepfathers, a childhood spent in primitive, back-to-nature squalor, and, to cap it all off, a father who capped himself when she was 5, Oliver has the kind of background that any aspiring memoirist would kill for.
With that kind of material, Oliver could have written something sublimely scathing, a Mommie Dearest for children of the Woodstock set. Or she could have skewered her self-absorbed elders with savage humor, a la Augusten Burroughs’ Running With Scissors. Instead, her Assembling My Father: A Daughter’s Detective Story is thoughtful, earnest, and almost asthma-inducingly cheerless—a grim chore of a read by a woman who, instead of just laying down the facts, chooses instead to drone on and on about her feelings in cold Iowa Writers’ Workshop prose.
Oliver’s life is full of hair-raising details about life among the longhairs—her mother was the kind of blissfully negligent parent who, after Oliver’s 6-year-old brother went into a near-coma after eating six tabs of acid that he found (oh, the ’60s!) in a VW bus parked at the family’s commune du jour, left him alone on a gurney at the hospital to go in search of a cheeseburger.
And Lewis Weinberger, the father whose life her book purports to assemble, was, by all accounts, a man of high promise: a New York Jewish intellectual, architect, and family man who, come the dawning of the Age of Aquarius, renounced his privileged existence to live communally in rural New Mexico. But things went wrong for Lewis Weinberger: His marriage broke up. He suffered from manic depression. And in the end, he achieved none of the things his charmed youth seemed to portend. Instead, he went from drug smuggler to cocaine burnout to, finally, on April 9, 1974, a man who put the business end of a .22-caliber pistol between his eyes and pulled the trigger. He was 35 years old.
But Oliver is incapable of simply telling her story. No, she’d sooner navel-gaze. This is her prerogative, of course. I’d be pissed too if I’d led a Christian fundamentalist childhood so culturally deprived that I didn’t know who John Lennon was until I was 12, or Martin Luther King Jr. until I was in college. Hers is the kind of book that will leave you grateful to your mom and dad for being boring bourgeois sticks-in-the-mud.
Still, nobody should approach her early years as joylessly as Oliver does—nobody who wants to keep a reader, anyway. If the hallmark of a good memoir is the author’s ability to draw you into her life, to win your sympathy and affection, then Oliver fails. In his remarkable memoir A Childhood: The Biography of a Place, Harry Crews recounts innumerable incidents of transfixing horror, including a near-fatal fall into a vat of scalding water. Yet his book isn’t half the bummer Oliver’s is. The tone of Assembling My Father is dutifully, lugubriously therapeutic; it reads less like entertainment than personal expiation. (The Oprah set will, undoubtedly, eat it up.)
If Oliver’s book has a prissy and overly formal tone, it emanates largely from her rather pretentious organizational conceits: her use of architectural theory as a metaphor for her act of “assembling” her architect father; her breaking up of the narrative into short and impressionistic sections with such faux-academic titles as “Quest 16: Library Books,” “Morris’s Death, Versions 1 Through 8: Note to the Reader,” and “Coincidences and Occurrences 5”; and her frequent recourse to reprinting in their entirety old poems, e-mails to and from old friends of her father, and the man’s journal entries. The book has the whiff of artifice; it’s been workshopped to within an inch of its life.
It’s hard to capture a ghost, and Oliver’s father slips enigmatically through the pages of Oliver’s memoir, remarkable only as every suicide is—for his refusal to give up the secrets that led to his final act. And the author’s decision to interweave the tale of her own later life through her dad’s serves to dispel any narrative momentum she might otherwise have developed; the poor guy is too frequently relegated to the back shelf as Oliver goes on and on about her attempts to find her way through what is, while no doubt of supreme interest to her, a rather uneventful early adulthood. The book’s subtitle promises us a “detective story,” but what we get is a discursive book that never manages to build any tension. Our “detective” may profess an obsession with her missing father, but it doesn’t stop her from forever launching into long digressions—about her marriage to another lapsed fundamentalist, her dissatisfaction with her stultifying suburban Minnesota lifestyle, her attempts to reconnect with the Jewish roots her mother turned her back on.
But Oliver’s book isn’t a complete wash. She may never manage to unravel the mystery of who her father was and why he chose to end his life the way he did, but her portraits of some of the other figures in her family romance are more successful. For example, her evocation of life with her stepfather Wayne—an uncouth, violently unstable alcoholic who died in a traffic accident shortly after Oliver’s mother left him—is subtle, even sympathetic. He was the kind of drunk who could take a shot with a .45 at his own stepson—and who, on one occasion, stuck his tongue down his stepdaughter’s throat to “teach what men and women do”—but he had an exuberant side, too, that his stepchildren cherished. He was a free spirit, albeit a dangerous one—once on a whim he took off with Oliver’s brother on his motorcycle for several days, and he evidently thought it the most normal thing in the world to relocate his family to Hawaii to live illegally on the beach. Indeed, Oliver admits that what scared her most about the terrible parental fights she witnessed as a child “was not that he would kill my mother, but that he would leave us.”
Oliver does a similarly good job of capturing her mother, whose transformation from Barnard bohemian to blinkered fundamentalist stemmed only in part from hostility toward her parents; the other part was, apparently, a deep-seated need for someone, anyone, to tell her what to do. The mother’s faith extended even into the realm of sleep; at one point, she instructed Oliver not to dream at night because it was sinful. As a cure, naturally, she recommended prayer: “I find that the more I pray before I go to bed, the less my dreams trouble me. In fact, I hardly dream at all anymore.”
How a sentient being raised in the 20th century in the shadow of one of the largest cities of the world by parents who placed a high value on the intellect could come to such a pass is a question well worth answering. The presence of Oliver’s mom is, in fact, more disturbing than the absence of her dad. In one of the most remarkable moments in the book, Oliver describes how, upon returning home as a teen to find her mother gone but food cooking on the stove, she immediately jumped to the terrifying conclusion that the Rapture had occurred and she’d been left behind. Her church friends experienced similar moments. They even had a term for them: “rapture scares.” Indeed, you can’t help but think that Oliver might have been better served by focusing on her fundamentalist upbringing. Ultimately, the father who is the ostensible focus of Assembling My Father is less interesting than the Assembly of God.CP