Prize-winning poet, essayist, and fiction writer Richard Hoffman is the author of Half the House, a memoir about coming to terms with the childhood rape he suffered at the hands of his baseball coach. In his new memoir, Love & Fury (Beacon Press, June, 2014) Hoffman grapples with the legacy of his boomer-generation boyhood in a rustbelt Pennsylvania town. Along the way, he explores the often unspoken values men inherit and draw upon as they navigate their roles as husbands, sons, fathers, and grandfathers. Tracing five generations of his family’s history, focusing particularly on his complicated relationship with his father, “a man given to extremes of grief and rage, to violent turns of emotion,” Hoffman asks difficult questions about how poverty and shame, faith and disillusionment, and sex and exploitation, affect men’s daily lives.
Hoffman’s meditations on his family, past and present, are touched off during a tense time in his home life: “The house was a stressful chamber of unspoken worries, recriminations, angers, misunderstandings and fears,” he writes. “And although the house I’d grown up in was filled with angers more chronic, tensions more constant, the two situations made a rhyme I wished I could erase.”
Taking readers back to that Allentown home, where his father and brother lived, Hoffman writes of his father’s decline and eventual death from a bone-marrow disorder. He recalls his blue-collar upbringing, during which two of his brothers slowly died of muscular dystrophy, and his mother, heartbroken and desolate, smoked three packs of Chesterfields a day, “moving toward the only escape available to her.”
Love & Fury offers a wide-ranging look at the consequences of the past and how American values, especially violence and the savagery of war, class, race, women, and masculinity, shape individuals and the families they create. It is also a penetrating look at the nature of family life—the daily sacrifices and disappointments, the deep betrayals and unimaginable forgivenesses, as well as the deep love and profound connections that reinforce family ties.
What follows are two excerpts from the book.
“Can I get you anything? Coffee? Tea? Water?”
“Not for me,” Joe said. I shook my head.
The funeral director rose. “Shall we go then? To choose a casket?”
Some were closed, some open. Some were wood. Some aluminum, some steel. Some were fine furniture: walnut, maple, cherry. Silks and satins inside: white, powder blue, silver, or rose. In only a moment I was overwhelmed. Joe asked, without quoting a figure, what she had in “a kind of midrange one.” She showed us a deep-plum-colored steel casket with a buttery satin lining. And a muted silver model, blue inside. And a coppery one. I wasn’t especially decisive; I just wanted this over with. “I think this one. What do you say, Joe?”
He shrugged, pursed his lips, nodded. We’d chosen the darker one. It had a little work where the railing was attached all around for the pallbearers.
“Very well then. Now, Richard, I understand that you would like to spend some time with your father?” I nodded. Back at her office she gave me a card. “Your father’s at our other location, on Fourth Street. Do you know where that is?” I nodded again. “The address is there on the card. I’ll call to let them know you’re coming. You understand that our aesthetician hasn’t finished with him yet, hasn’t finished his work. I want to be sure you understand that.”
It was perfectly appropriate that she was so businesslike and accommodating and I wished she was something more, although just what I couldn’t say.
The other funeral home was across town, in a neighborhood near where I’d gone to high school. It was alive with bodegas, hoagie shops, travel agents, restaurants, fruit markets, and, at that time of day, kids coming home from school, the boys wearing ties and white shirts, the girls in their plaid Catholic jumpers. Whenever my father got on one of his rants about how the city was falling into ruin, my brother would tell him to come off it, that if he spoke Spanish, he’d think it was a great place to live.
I had been gripping an upright of the steel shelving, hard, a red crease in my palm. I moved toward my father. I touched his face and stood looking at him.
The expression on my father’s face was odd, a kind of self-
satisfied smirk. Maybe that’s too strong a word, smirk. It’s hard to describe because although I’d seen the expression thousands of times, it was always fleeting, the prelude to a wisecrack, or laughter, or his saying, “Aw, go on!” incredulously, a slight movement of the lip—except that now it wasn’t a movement—on its way to something else. In the next instant surely he would say something.
The day before, I had set out as soon as my brother called to say that he’d taken my father to the emergency room. Traffic was heavy on the interstate. My brother called a couple of times to let me know what the doctors were saying. The next time he called he said, “Well, you didn’t make it. And neither did he.” The hospital staff wanted to know how far away I was and if they could move the body or if I’d be there soon. I said I was far away.
Alone in a car is a good place to get such news. I cried a good while, without restraint, before calling my wife and then my friend Will in Michigan, who loved my father like another son. He’d played baseball on one of my father’s teams and had stayed close to him and our family for more than forty years. “The world is different now,” I said to him. And then I spoke to my father, the one I’d made of him, the one in my head. Aloud. I thanked him and said good-bye.
As if he were ever going to go away.
I was trying to feel some of that grief now with all that was left of him in this stark room, but it was futile. A single fly, large, loud, came buzzing in a series of loops toward me, close enough that I shooed it away; it seemed to labor in the closeness and heat as it rose to a top shelf and alighted somewhere out of sight.
I was trying to orient myself. I looked away, scanning the shelves of plastic jugs and bottles, cartons, paper towels, not seeing anything. I wasn’t feeling anything, either—no tears, no lump in the throat, no heartache.
But I recognized my state of mind. Had I been younger, had writing not been a part of my life for more than forty years, I would have panicked at my lack of emotion. I would have levied a terrible judgment on myself. But by now I knew that I was recording all of it, not only to write about it but to keep it, as I could not if I were distracted by sentiment. I knew I would weep again for my father, for his suffering, for the injustice of his life, for his loss. In that moment I was receiving a kind of imprint, as if I were recording a period of time, and a place, that would forever exist inside of me, a camera oscura, my time with my father’s body in this room forever mine. I can return to that room now at will. I swear if I actually went back there I could tell you which cartons and containers had been moved. At any time now I can reinhabit this storeroom pieta and I can grieve all I want, all I need.
The fly came humming toward me again and I ignored it. It alighted on my shoulder for a moment then zigzagged off toward the windows, where it buzzed along the frame and bumped along the frosted glass, looking for a way out.
Then I did something impulsive: I pulled the blanket from my father and stared. I began with his feet and noted where he’d torn off the nail of his big toe with a pliers a couple of weeks before; he’d bloodied it on the doorjamb in his bare feet, and trying to free the nail from where it had cut into his flesh, he tore the whole thing off. I looked at his bowed, arthritic legs and bony knees, his penis and—he had a dozen names for them—“the family jewels.” He called them his privates. (Inflected with his army experience, the term became a quip, an adage: “Privates take orders; they don’t give them.” Good advice.) A hirsute man, my father’s abundant chest hair came right up to his neck, and I could see that the mortician had shaved a little there, probably when told that we wanted to bury him without a necktie. And that smirk which made me want to say “What?”
It was not so much that I was looking at him; it was more my body, my whole body, recognizing itself in his.
It occurred to me then that someone might come in. What would they think? What would they think I was doing? I didn’t even know what I was doing. I placed the blanket over him, kissed his forehead, patted him twice on the shoulder.
At the door I looked back at the body on the gurney, my father’s body, the body we share. It seemed to mean, as surely as any broken bony Christ’s down from his cross, “Don’t be fooled. This is how it ends.”
Except—suddenly I know it, wordlessly—it doesn’t end.
Don’t be fooled.
Years ago I volunteered with the Alternatives to Violence Program, or AVP, but only on two weekends. Both times I was the only male on the team of five. Mostly I stood off to the side and watched the women present the material. The program is designed so that after several weekends you become certified to teach the curriculum; after a few more, you’re certified to lead a team.
I recall returning from the first weekend disturbed and uncomfortable, but it was hard for me to grasp what was bothering me, especially since it was my first time inside a prison, but I sensed it had something to do with the approach my AVP colleagues were taking. Still, who was I to criticize?
So I returned a couple of weekends later for the second session of the course. At one point, when the lead teacher turned to write on a newsprint pad mounted on an easel—“deescalate”—one of the inmates caught my eye and nodded in her direction, making a lewd gesture with his hand and mouth. None of the women saw it. He looked at me, all but winked at me: we know the score, don’t we? I did nothing. Which put me on his side, I suppose.
And yet, that moment, and that inmate’s vulgar schoolboy gesture, snapped me out of any illusion that we were getting through to any of the men in the room. The immaturity and misogyny of that moment, not to mention the look I received from the inmate and the complicity of my inaction, combined in a way I recognized. For all of our differences, we men in that room by and large had shared the standard-issue American boyhood. In that curriculum, violence, not so much hidden as disguised—as athleticism, as patriotism, as ambition—is of the essence. And so I came to believe that the women were starting from the wrong set of assumptions. These prisoners were not men who had strayed from the path, not at all; they had learned their culture’s lessons, our culture’s lessons, all too well; they were the guys who got an A in the course, and had they had other opportunities, other arenas in which to deploy their gladiatorial training, they might have been CEOs or senators. They would get an A in this course, too, because after all, telling women what you have figured out they want to hear is also part of the hidden curriculum of boyhood.
I seldom hear anything that sounds like the truth about boyhood. I myself have been lying about boyhood ever since it ended. Not that I can point to a moment when it ended. I used to do that, too, tell about the moment I became a man, but that was another lie. As I work to strip away the lies, I see why it was I needed each of them. Or maybe as I outgrow the need for each lie, it becomes clear to me for what it is, becomes defined and articulate, and slips away, but not before I get a glimpse of all the other lies—and a few truths, too—it was connected to. Sometimes it feels as if I am unraveling, but I no longer think that’s a bad thing. Maybe when I’m done unraveling there will be time enough remaining to make something new of myself, something more of my own design. If not, then at least I will have spent my time on a project of my own, quixotic though it may have been.
Remaking oneself. Isn’t that what prison affords the opportunity to do? Wasn’t that its original purpose? Is this not called a “correctional institution”? In reality, I doubt that society wants more Gramscis, Dostoyevskys, Malcolms.
About a year after my AVP experience, I was given the chance to lead a men’s group at “The Farm,” Concord’s prerelease facility. It was not an AA meeting or really anything like it. But it was called Tools of Recovery and based on a curriculum a local pastor and clinician had devised. The term “recovery” was understood broadly. When I first agreed to lead this group, the program was designed as an eight-week course. It usually took five or six weeks for the men to finish giving voice to their resentment at being incarcerated. During that time my role was to listen. I recall one man doing time for possession of a handgun:
“In my neighborhood? Where I live? Know what we call a nigger with no gun?
The second time I ran the course, I lengthened it to ten weeks. Finally, it found its real length—twelve weeks. I remember one guy in an early class who really helped me to shape subsequent discussions. Many of the men had children, and we were talking about what it takes to be a good father. Some were angry that their children’s mothers never brought them for a visit. Others were remorseful about missing years of their kids’ growing up. But this guy was thinking of his own father. “My father?” he said, “My father? I fuckin’ hate that guy! I fuckin’ hate him! But I fuckin’ love him, too. Y’know what I mean?” Or maybe it was the other way around. I honestly don’t remember. What I recall is the ferocity of his emotion and how utterly deflated he was a moment later. The oscillation between a hateful bitterness and an angry love is exhausting.
Both excerpts are from Love & Fury: A Memoir by Richard Hoffman, © 2014. Excerpted with permission by Beacon Press.