Issue 56 |

rev. of Lives of the Fathers by Steven Schwartz


"I hear him weep," a narrator says of his father in Steven Schwartz's fine second collection, "but rather than sadness I feel a great relief; finally, something I've done has touched him."

If Flannery O'Connor's stories are "mother-ridden," Schwartz's are, in a gentler sense, father-ridden. Seven of the ten short stories in
Lives of the Fathers explore family ties, most often those that bind fathers and sons. Expertly, Schwartz tracks the power shifts within families. In "Uncle Isaac," a son loses money from the family store and finds that his father has become "my accuser, someone to whom I could never prove my innocence." Conversely, a son in another story stumbles upon his father embracing a secretary, and discovers the "sudden power" that makes "his father a frightened giant."

Whether dealing with parents or children, Schwartz is especially deft at capturing his characters' most contradictory feelings. In "Legacy," a father remembers his rationalizations for cheating on his longtime wife, Ruth: "He thought maybe it might even help, put a little excitement back into his life, make him want Ruth more. At least that's what he told himself. And the worst thing was that it did."

By the end of "Legacy," the couple's son has acted out his own version of his father's betrayal, becoming involved with a promiscuous patient in a mental hospital. This first sexual experience leaves the boy both exhilarated ("his skin was covered with wondrous eyes") and guilty. "He'd done to someone what his father had done to his mother and what one day his son would do to someone all over again and there was no stopping it."

But there is, for Schwartz, a way to make sense of the cycle. "Madagascar," the collection's finale, begins with the haunting line: "This is a story I know so well." As the narrator retells the tale of his Jewish father's World War II boyhood, he expresses the desire "to speak so well that he can give his father the power to save himself from his own father." Schwartz seems to share this desire, one that infuses his stories with a refreshing sense of hope.

Always, however, he tempers this hopefulness with wry realism. In Schwartz's stories, the restlessness of the fathers is often visited upon the sons. One son in his thirties is assured that "anxiety and depression are more common than he might think, especially for men around his age." When he blows out the candles on his birthday cake, he "waits for them to come back on," remembering a joke his wife had pulled the year before. "But the candles go out completely, smoking. This is it. No tricks. Thirty-five."

With clear, straightforward prose and understated compassion, Schwartz offers his readers "no tricks." He never lets his grimly comic stories slide into easy sentiment or pat resolutions. Instead, admirably, Steven Schwartz succeeds in presenting his world according to the dictum recited by a character who works in a furniture store: "As is, as is."      
-- Elizabeth Searle