I met John Darnton when we were both fourteen years old, going on fifteen. It was our first year at Andover, a Junior Ivy League boarding school, and we were both assigned to the same small dormitory that housed six boys. Within a few weeks, John and I were roommates, and as our friendship grew (we remained roommates for three years) I learned that we had more in common than just our first names, our age (our birthdays were two days apart), and our ability to quote passages of The Catcher in the Rye as if it were scripture.
For one thing, we were both storytellers. Some of our stories made it to English classes, some were just adolescent fantasies concocted across the room after lights out. John wrote for the school newspaper (presaging a brilliant career in journalism) and was editor of the school’s literary magazine.
I also learned that John Darnton and I had in common two other character-forming glitches. For one thing, we both had never had the pleasure of knowing our fathers. His father, a New York Times correspondent, had been killed in the South Pacific during World War II. Mine had died about the same time, in the U.S.A., the victim of heart disease, which was less dramatic but just as deadly.
The other thing John Darnton and I had in common was our alcoholic mothers. I learned about his mother’s alcoholism by hearing an essay he wrote for English class our sophomore year, which described an AA meeting he and his brother had gone to with their recovering mom. I didn’t share my concern about my own mother’s drinking problem at that time, either because it embarrassed me or because I was still trying to fool myself.
After Andover, John Darnton went on to a distinguished career, toiling in the fields of the Word. In his father’s footsteps, he worked for The New York Times, rising over the years from copy boy to metropolitan editor and cultural news editor, by way of covering world-shaking events in Africa (protests in South Africa, the fall of Idi Amin, and other hair-raising adventures) and Europe. He won a Pulitzer Prize for his dare-devil coverage of the Solidarity Movement in Poland, during martial law and a crackdown on the press.
Darnton retired from the Times in 2005, but not before he had established himself as a fiction writer, publishing a sequence of thought-provoking, entertaining, and best-selling novels: Neanderthal, The Experiment, Mind Catcher, and The Darwin Conspiracy. In 2008 he published a satiric mystery, Black and White and Dead All Over, set in the world of the major New York metropolitan daily, which he doesn’t quite name The New York Times.
Meanwhile I had a minor-league literary career of my own, but nothing by comparison with John’s. I will skip over all that, except to touch down on my novel Elephant Lake, published earlier this year on Kindle and Nook, which zeroes in on the tenth summer of a boy whose widowed mother is a depressed alcoholic who’s trying to write a book about her late husband. The boy, Davy, tries to find out from his mother just what sort of person his father was, but she won’t talk to him about that. Curiously—I’d like to think it was unintentional and coincidental, but I’m willing to plead guilty to the kind of identity theft most fiction writers indulge in—my Davy’s father had been a war correspondent, killed during World War II in the South Pacific.
My novel, Elephant Lake, was written and epublished before I had the great pleasure of reading John Darnton’s remarkable book Almost a Family. In his honest, self-baring, and dramatic memoir, John digs, digs, digs through the past, through correspondence and family gossip and newspaper clippings in search of the man who was remembered so fondly by those who still remembered him, as a witty, debonair, kind, adventurous man—as well as a star reporter. What John found was that his father, Barney Darnton, also had his flaws. He was a hard-drinking, hard-smoking ladies’ man. He emerges from the research as a real man, if perhaps a bit larger than life, and a man his son would have enjoyed trading wisecracks with.
John also devotes much of his book to the harrowing tale of his mother’s downward spiral into alcoholism. This was no mere drinking problem, this was a critical disease. It got so that Eleanor Darnton could not hold a job, could barely hold a conversation with her sons, and was reduced to selling her furniture in order to pay the rent, put food on the table, and buy more liquor. Anyone who had an alcoholic parent will relate to this tale, except that John’s experience was more frightening than most. Her recovery, therefore, was a just-in-time act of huge courage and strength.
Almost a Family, then, is a study of childhood without traditional parents, and a search for whatever identity one might have inherited from a father one never knew. It reads like a well-crafted mystery, because Darnton has sprinkled the memoir with clues, and one question after another is answered by a surprise.
Unlike the rave reviews in Publishers Weekly, The New York Times, New York Review of Books, The New Yorker, and many others, I will not tell you the story in enough detail to ruin the surprises. I will say this, though, from personal experience: a boy’s (and a man’s) quest to learn the identity of his father—let’s call it the Telemachus Complex—is a very real concern for many. So is the plight of a boy’s coming to terms with, and coping with, his mother’s alcoholism, a plight that haunts long after the boy has become a man.
John Darnton’s Almost a Family is a bookful of this rich material, written by a skilled reporter and a master storyteller.
Note: For more information about Almost a Family, see John Darnton’s website: http://www.johndarnton.com/index.html.
For more information about my novel Elephant Lake, mentioned above, see my website, http://www.danielpublishing.com/jmd/index.html, or home in on http://www.danielpublishing.com/jmd/elephant_lake.html.