BOOK REVIEW: Richard Hoffman mines his troubled past and present for forgiveness. Over how many generations of sons, he asks, must a father’s shadow loom?
Richard Hoffman’s new memoir, the slightly scattered but bracingly introspective “Love and Fury” (Beacon Press, 296 pages, $24.95), is his second, but the trials of his life have been such that he could be forgiven at least two more. Born into a working-class Pennsylvania household in which two of his three brothers were afflicted with muscular dystrophy, he watched as his pious mother and World War II paratrooper father (a slightly less than virulently racist man uncomfortable with every changing facet of the postwar world) struggled with the caprice of God. Later, his young adulthood would be plagued by self-hatred and substance abuse to dull the memory of his rape at the hands of a coach. And if that isn’t enough, cancer dogs at the family’s heels throughout.
But this memoir looks forward as much as back; as Hoffman attempts to come to peace with his father’s deeply problematic form of masculinity, he is forced to watch the same issues play out in his own son, dealing with a similar strain of self-destruction, and the reluctant fatherhood of the young Jamaican man who begets Hoffman’s first grandchild with his college-age daughter.
Redemption is not the goal here so much as simple forgiveness. To put it plainly, Hoffman has had it rough, and he pulls no punches in describing his dissatisfaction. As he writes of his childhood home life: “I knew that had I stayed I would have rotted in that house. That house of dying, of sorrow and anger, of violence and doomed love, of waiting, always, for death; that house of sighs and separate rooms and cases of beer and cartons of cigarettes, of phlegmy coughs and curses and apologies and the next day the same day, the same unchanging deadness, numbness all the pleasure one could expect, oblivion as relief and love reduced to duty.” Not much to be redeemed, but plenty to be forgiven.
It’s writing like this that makes the memoir such an affecting read. Hoffman is so close to these problems, the wounds still so fresh, that his ability to describe them far outstrips his ability to understand them; the reader just about pulls his hair out as he watches Hoffman give another and another chance to the ex-convict who impregnates his teenage daughter, drives his grandson around in a car in which a handgun rests in the glove box, and is subsequently arrested and imprisoned again on new charges.
It’s fair for one to wonder, where is the rage? Why so much forgiveness? But Hoffman’s early life was so devoid of genuine love that the fact that he is able to create so much of it out of nothing in his later life is a human triumph, and a lesson in how to put a stop to cycles of inherited negativity. This is either the worst book one could give as a gift to one’s father, or the best.
Nicholas Mancusi’s criticism has appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, Miami Herald and other publications.