Every son has a father. Few writers delineate the tension between fathers and sons as well as Brent Spencer, author of the novel "The Lost Son" and the story collection "Are We Not Men?" chosen by the Village Voice as one of the year's best books. And yet Spencer's own father, a career Navy officer, was largely absent while he was growing up.
"In some ways, every man who grows up without a father is a kind of self-made Frankenstein monster of a man," Spencer said in a recent interview. "A patchwork of attitudes, habits and values picked up here and there -- from male mentors, movies, novels, magazines, wherever. Such self-education leaves large gaps. You're constantly asking yourself, 'Is this how it's done?'"
Spencer, who is married to novelist Jonis Agee, will be in the Twin Cities this week to read at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul.
In his new memoir, "Rattlesnake Daddy," he describes "life without father" -- except for one harrowing year in the early 1960s. That year, his father inflicted sadistic "discipline" on the 8-year-old Brent, forcing him to wash his clothes in the toilet when he failed to rake the gravel driveway smooth, or holding a knife's edge above his closed eyes at night to make sure he was asleep.
Although his parents divorced, "Neurologists say that suffering one act of violence alters the victim's brain chemistry forever," Spencer writes. "Now, every fall, I'm very serious about raking leaves. I rake them onto tarps that I haul away, I grind them into mulch, I remove every last one from the yard. I tell myself all this attention is good for the lawn, but I know the truth."
His memoir begins in 2000 with the news that his father has mysteriously drowned off the coast of Florida -- an unlikely death for a trained sailor. Was it suicide or murder or a freak accident? When Spencer discovers "The Mexico Log of Commander R.C. Spencer," he chooses to skip the funeral and retrace his father's journey south of the border, an area where his father lived in a camper for the last 10 years of his life.
"I took the trip instead of going to the funeral because I wanted the story behind the story, the man behind the myth," he said. "Did I find it? I'm not sure. Pieces of it. Maybe that's all we can ever hope to know about our fathers.
"Making the journey and writing this book were ways of consolidating everything I knew about my father and everything I could learn. In the end, I guess I learned more about myself than about him, which is maybe the greatest lesson a father can give a son."
In "Rattlesnake Daddy," Spencer's father is larger than life -- a dashing officer, a budding inventor, a college freshman, a war hero, a government spy and, in perhaps the book's most unsettling revelation, a bigamist. Retracing his father's steps, Spencer repeatedly receives cryptic warnings to cease and desist. This hints of a cover-up, whether Big Brother, cosmic, imagined or some combination.
The memoir alternates Spencer's trip with excerpts from the commander's journal, in which he sounds surprisingly erudite and humane. We get a sense of the father -- an unscrupulous raconteur -- and the son -- a respected English professor -- as unlikely doppelgängers.
"I see a lot of my father in myself," Spencer said, "a realization that frightens and delights me, sometimes both at once.
"To some degree the young dogs want to bring down the old dogs. But men of my father's generation wanted to be seen as supermen, no matter what the reality was. I think my father might have avoided lots of problems if he had just admitted his fallibility."
Now, 11 years later, Spencer says, "The trip helped me understand the exact contours of my relationship with my father. He still haunts me, is still a presence in my life."
But time, place and age offer some reprieve, as Spencer, who teaches at Creighton University in Omaha and lives in the hills north of town says, "Now my yard is so steep I can't be a perfectionist about raking up every last leaf."
St. Paul poet James Cihlar is the author of "Undoing" and "Metaphysical Bailout."