My Father's Cabin
A Tale of Life,
(Lyons Press)Mark Phillips grew up in upstate New York. His father worked at a power plant, work that was "boring, dangerous, filthy sweaty deafening." Work was the price of pleasure: going fishing, staying in bed late, vacations at Chautauqua Lake, hunting deer, planning --- and building --- a cabin in the Alleghenies.
There are three stories here. The first is of a father working at a terrible job --- one so terrible that his arms and hands would be burned from the welding torch that he used at the plant; when he sweated, his shirts would turn black from the coal dust and soot that had crept into his skin.
The second is the story of a boy growing up --- and away --- from this father, a boy who comes of age in the 1960s, living with complaints about his long hair, ("I'm old enough to grow my hair how I want"), his rebellion complicated by a tic (turns out he had Tourettes Syndrome --- they called him "Blinky" Phillips).
The final story --- the epic, really --- is of the changing of America. In the 1950s a man could work hard, take pride in his work, pride in his country; weekends and vacations hunting and fishing, a cabin in the woods built it with his own hands. But the world is changing: the kind of job that made (and destroyed) Marks' father no longer exists. It is not only the advances in technology, but a more fundamental change: plants closing down, jobs exported to other countries, farms and factories disappearing.
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I read this one a few weeks ago, had no trouble getting through it --- it's straight-forward, industrial-strength prose. I took extensive notes and now, comes time to write it up and I'm befuddled. Something is missing. It might be poetry, it might be passion, it might be relativity.
The author writes of a time when emotions were well-hidden; tells of an inarticulate father building an inarticulate life. The cabin off there in Ischua becomes the dream, but he's done in by the brutality of the lunchpail life he is forced to live. As the cabin takes shape, this man, castrated (prostate cancer that had spread), is dying in pain.
We want our leading characters to be heroic, but with heroism there must be inspiration and hope for us to cling to. The picture of a man burned inside and out by an inchoate, unloving, unforgiving life bears little of these. It's tragedy writ small --- a tragedy not of the gods but of the daily grind.
I caught myself, in contrast, thinking of the characters painted by Sherwood Anderson in Winesburg, Ohio. Their lives, too, were small. But they (and their author) were moved by a certain grotesquerie which created its own large drama. Without this drama (or its concomitant passion) we have nothing more than a man dying as victim of a nation's dreams and clichés --- get to work every day, don't shirk, raise a good family, play hard, take joy in the simple pleasures, watch TV, consume. In this book, he (and the readers), become victims --- not of virtue but of parody.
Now we can and should despair that this is so; we can hope that our children will escape the treadmill, be freed of mindless, backbreaking toil founded on myth ("good, honest workers helping to build a great country"). My Father's Cabin, however, is Mr. Blanding's Dream House turned askew, seen as a proletarian nightmare --- a hut that takes shape as a man's body comes apart.
So --- what are we left with? The author tells us: "The body was cremated. There was no funeral. We never picked up the ashes." The man's death, as his life, had too little in it worth commemorating. It is the futile life of a futile man, the common man scarred by the American Dream.
We should naturally grieve that this should be so, but the author's ambivalence poisons the well, leaves us with no more than a mild regret that there should have been so much effort and pain for so little effect.
When Shakespeare's heroes die, we despair that the universe had to pay such a high price to right a terrible wrong. When Phillips' father dies, we can but grieve that so much had to be sacrificed to create so little.--- Robert Satchiwell