||A Borderline Case
by David Homel
ONCE, IN AN ironic mood, my father said to me, "One day you`ll thank me for giving you an unhappy childhood; at least you`ll have something to write about." Well, Clark Blaise got the whole works: an unhappy childhood with all the trimmings, putting the rest of us amateur unhappy children to shame. Blaise revisits his childhood in I Had a Father, which is openly autobiographical. In the process, he goes beyond recollection to chronicle his attempts to come to terms with his father, himself, his largely unsatisfactory (to him, not necessarily to his readers) place in North American letters, Canadian society, and, above all, with the daily commerce of life while carrying the burdens of the past.
When we think of a writer or any public figure composing an autobiography, we conjure up the image of someone above the fray, near their journey`s end, or at least lodged in some ivory tower of reflection. This is not the case with Blaise. At the age of 52, he writes this chronicle, as he says in the last few pages, to ensure his own existence. This is not a final report; it is a dispatch from the front: tangled, contradictory, selfrevealing, selfprotective and thoroughly, fascinating.
With this book, Blaise makes his con. tribution to the rapidly increasing literature about lost and missing fathers, part of the current exploration
of masculinity spurred on by the women`s movement. The father under scrutiny is Leo Romeo Blais, an example of the American dream gone crazy, a gypsy who changes women and addresses and jobs at a dizzying rate, moving wife and child to ever more obscure comers of America until he reaches north Florida (territory that readers of Blaise`s fiction will recognize). This chaotic childhood inflicted no small damage on young Clark: short, pale, sickly, pudgy, unathletic, he was no match for the life on the road to which his father adhered. Much of I Had a Father details the author`s miseries as a young boy, to the point where we wonder if a certain delight isn`t being taken in them. Which is normal, I suppose; who among us has not derived some glory from his or her wounds?
I Had a Father must have taken an extraordinary amount of psychic energy, not to speak of the daring involved in uncovering so much of oneself. Of course, Blaise admits early on in the book, if his father`s absence did not exist, he would have had to invent it. Novels, like lives, are built around absences, and Blaise has found one absence - his father`s - to serve in both instances. "Age and disappointment ... have caused me to reinvent my father, he writes, "I have repack aged him." Blaise, as a man, needed a father to look for, and there was Leo Romeo Blais, a convenient mirror for the "age and disappointment" that Blaise discusses in this book. To say this implies no artificiality or fakery. Writers take what they need where they need it, and when they need it.
I Had a Father breaks into two strands, intertwined but distinct. There are the memories of and search for the author`s father, a quest that takes him from north Florida to the FrancoAmerican towns of New England, and finally to Lac-Megantic, along the Maine-Quebec border. And while this search progresses in fits and starts, uncovering more questions than answers, Blaise comments on his own "age and disappointment" as a writer in Canada and the United States.
Readers seeking insight into the workings of the writer`s mind will most likely be disappointed, since I Had a Father has no intention of being a literary autobiography. Much of Blaise`s commentary about the writing profession in Canada is drenched in spite. He feels neglected; he is simply too old, too white, too male to be admitted into academic jobs; his work has disappeared while that of his wife (Bharati Mukherjee) has soared. Besides which, Canada, he informs us, is racist. As someone who comes from the country that gave us the Rodney King trials, I would have appreciated a little development of that opinion.
At the same time, Blaise tells us, he is forever jetting off to New Zealand, Argentina, Poland, or somewhere else as part of his employment at the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa. Many of us ((emerging" writers would gladly share in some of the riches on Blaise`s plate.
But his complaints are not to be taken too literally. If you grew up skinny and poor, that image will follow you the rest of your days, no matter how husky you`ve grown or how much money you have in the bank. And Blaise does have one real beef, something that many white "ethnic" writers have been saying in response to the wave of political correctness. They are in danger of losing their identities and being cast into the role of oppressors (no matter their personal and collective histories) by more fashionable minorities affecting the "posture of victimization," as Blaise calls it.
But sorting through Blaise`s feastor-famine career is not the true pleasure or purpose of this work. There are wonderful, lyrical evocations of a north Florida childhood -driving across the flat straight roads at night in an open car, to the sea, so that the young Blaise might seek relief from his allergies on a cool beach. Later, we feel Blaise`s helplessness as he watches his father go on his seemingly predestined path to pitiful self-deception, once the "rage and charm that took the place of language" deserts him. The image of his father committing commercial suicide by refusing to open his stores - this from a selfmade man always looking for the next dollar - is very powerful. And Blaise`s comments on old Jansenist Quebec, and how it lives on today, are wonderfully accurate.
"There comes a time in everyone`s life when accumulated contradictions take their toll," Blaise writes. This book is a record of Leo Romeo Blais`s contradictions, and how Clark Blaise, the next generation, followed and reinvented them. That is why it should be read - for its contradictions.