Father of the Rain

Globe and Mail, 10 July 2010

FATHER OF THE RAIN, LILY KING, GROVE ATLANTIC, 384 pages, pub date July 10, 2010, $29.50

There should be a German word to describe pleasure at the death of a much maligned ruling class. Certainly much of press on this summer's literary hit Father of the Rain centers on the fact that the father is an upper class (Republican) drunk who is also vaguely racist, definitely sexist, and a narcissistic charmer when he wants something. To me, however, he is just another drunk, albeit a scintillating, often brilliant, even literary drunk. Alcoholics and addicts, as everyone knows, come in every class, colour and political orientation, and while I suppose the upper class addicts I have known are better at being viciously analytical while they lay to waste every life they touch, addicts of every sort - plain and simple - destroy their children.

Which to me - aside from the very fine writing - is the point of this beautiful, sere and ruthless book.

Father of the Rain mines familiar territory – chick lit – and like the genre it transcends, is relentlessly domestic. It opens on Daley's 11th birthday during the Watergate 70's, when her father buys her a ragamuffin puppy, loops back to her fifth birthday when he built her a swimming pool because of a perceived insult at the country club - where he, of course, wins all the tennis matches - then back home, puppy in hands, where Daley's mother, Meredith, a Democratic activist, is providing poor kids an afternoon at that family pool. Father and daughter take off all their clothes, streak out on the lawn, and plunge into the pool, shrieking, hollering, mocking Catherine and her do-gooder pals, much to the delight of the poor kids. Afterwards Daley and her father on the porch are locked in ecstasy at their at their prank, their love for each other, the bounding physical joy of being alive.

Within six months, Daley and her mother Meredith have left the big old house a block from the ocean, and Daley plunges into what seems like life-long mourning. Forced by the arrangements her parents' make, she returns to the big house every other weekend, to watch Gardiner's new wife and her step-siblings inhabit her old life, while her father, still brilliant, still the most exciting man she'll ever meet, spirals downwards by inches into brutishness. Meredith, soars, meets a young lawyer with similar progressive politics and they make a happy marriage. But there is just no brokering of Daley's loyalties – she descends into a fugue state, a kind of endless dysthymia which provides just enough energy to take her to school, college, graduate school. Study saves her, inures her to Meredith's death in a car crash, the usurpation of her father by alcohol, her stepmother and step-siblings, and helps her survive a sense of loss so deep, it is the black hole at the center of her soul. She becomes an anthropologist, works in a village in Mexico for a year and falls deeply in love with a black academic, with whom she plans a starry future. She wins a coveted post-doc fellowship at Berkeley.

Just as she has earned a happy life, her father decides he needs her, and within 48 hours she gives up the man, the fellowship, and returns to haute waspdom to save her father, whose second wife has left him because, guess what, he's a mean drunk, who has branched into slapping people around.

Daley forces him into AA, drives him to his meetings, and collects him afterwards. She teaches him how to cook, how to do laundry, keep house. After 90 days, he is morphing into another man, one she wants to believe in. She know if she leaves, the new man will vanish. And he does.

What is particularly fine about Father of the Rain is Lily King's unflinching description of Daley's emotional universe. The devastation in a child's psyche caused by an alcoholic or drug addicted parent has never been so well described, so far as I know. Many adult children of alcoholics flounder through life unaware of the cause of their maladaptation. And there are so many of us. The 70's were the years that kicking over the traces, discarding the supposed repression of centuries became common. King shows us in precise and inescapable terms, just what havoc that “freedom” wrought for the most sensitive. Lily King's Daley triumphs for one reason alone, by practising the stern character virtues – self-denial, discipline, rigourous self examination that her father - and an entire generation - abandoned. But not, of course, before she tries nearly everything else. Lily King's Daley triumphs, but she is also Lily King's triumph.