Bad dads

The worst complaint most people will make about their father is driving too slow on the freeway or dancing to embarrassing effect at a wedding reception. But we still love the big lug.

Then there are those whose dads leave a little more to be desired, and in extreme cases, become worthy of autobiographical study. Read Jeannette Walls’ “The Glass Castle” or Frank McCourt’s “Angela’s Ashes,” and it’s hard to find more egregious examples of failed fatherhood.

Both books are painful recollections of bad parenting from the child’s point of view. The misbehavior runs the gamut, from severe alcoholism and chronic unemployment that subjects the family to poverty and starvation, to a more benign but no less scarring outright absence from the lives of their children. In both cases, the protagonists endure alternating levels of abuse and neglect, leading them to eventually give up on not only their fathers but entire families as they split town in search of a better life.

That’s obviously a bittersweet resolution, but the best that can be expected from stories based in reality and not fairy tales. What surprises me, though, is the adult children’s desire to memorialize their fathers through their respective books. More than once, Walls and McCourt revisit rare paternal displays of decency and, yes, charm that complicate the overall picture. How they’re able to do that is a mystery to me when after all, Walls’ dad taught her to swim by literally throwing her into the deep end of a hot spring, nearly drowning her, and once half-heartedly attempted to prostitute his teenage daughter to raise a few bucks. McCourt’s father did little better, sinking any of the family’s meager financial windfalls into the local tavern and ultimately disappearing to England, leaving mom and kids to fend for themselves.

But, it’s their story, not mine, and should they choose to cling to any redeeming characteristics they can associate with their fathers, I have to respect that. It gratifies me, however, to list puttering along in the slow lane as the worst memory I can offer of my own dad.