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The Shadow Man.

"I love you more than God," David Gordon told his daughter, Mary, before dying of a heart attack when she was 7. His only child, than whom there's no brainier writer or reader, no more resourceful archeologist of hidden meanings, has worried this bone, like a hound of heaven, ever since: "I didn't know, and still don't if he meant he loved me more than he loved God or more than God loved me. It almost doesn't matter. It was a serious thing to say and it scared me."

It also sounds like a curse. No one, not even a parent, should have such power over our imagining of ourselves. Nor ought any child need to love him back so much, at whatever cost. But David taught Mary to read when she was 3; to memorize the Latin Mass when she was 5; to dwell in libraries and ideas. "He ripped a picture of Beethoven out of the encyclopedia and hung it near my toy box." The only other picture allowed in the house was a print of Holbein's Thomas More; no landscapes, no still lifes, certainly not any modern art, which he considered "dangerous, and ugly, too." Not even any television. Instead, the Easter show at Radio City, where the Rockettes dressed up as angels and nuns. And Six O'Clock Saints, where Mary learned the story of Saint Nicholas, who reassembled little boys who had been dismembered and pickled. And in a magazine her father edited, The Children's Hour, tales of the super-dutiful daughters of Prospero, Rip Van Winkle and the Chinese mandarin Kuan-Yo.

In Lafcadio Hearn's "The Soul of the Bell," Kuan-Yo, an adviser to the emperor, supervises the construction of the world's most perfect bell. But the heated metals of gold, silver and brass won't blend, and the bell can't be cast. To save his life, Kuan-Yo consults the usual wise old man on the usual mountain, who explains that only the body of the usual spotless virgin can cause the metals to blend. Naturally, Kuan- Yo has just such a daughter, who promptly flings herself into the vat, crying "For thy sake, O father." Presto: ding-dong. "The perfect life," says a sarcastic Mary, "the perfect death, the graceful fall into the boiling metal.... Endlessly entombed, endlessly beloved, endlessly revered, the body turns to music, the perfection of the bell's tone repeats itself in the receptive and ecstatic air." And yet, not believing a word of Hearn, what she does in this aurora of a memoir is turn herself into a bell. "Ecclesiastical language is full of names for vessels," she tells us: "chalice, ciborium, monstrance, pyx; there must be containers to enclose, keep safe, keep intact, keep protected from the world's contamination the sacred matter." The world contaminated her only father. Too late to protect him, Mary's bell will ring his vespers.

Because the David Gordon who wrote poems to his daughter--from whom she learned "the sovereignty of the mind and the imagination," after whom she named her son--was also the David Gordon who, in the twenties, edited a semi-porn girlie magazine called Hot Dog; and, in the late thirties and early forties, wrote anti-Semitic articles for Catholic International and the Jesuit weekly America; and, in the early fifties, wrote speeches for Joe McCarthy. Even his biography of the poet Paul Claudel, written a decade after the terrible news of the death camps, was actually a diatribe against Andre Gide, Modernism and "the infection of the Jews": "The Jew Proust. The Jew Bergson. The Jew Masoch..." More remarkably, David Gordon had himself been born a Jew, only converting to Roman Catholicism in 1937, just in time to side with Franco in the Spanish Civil War and to complain in America about the international brigades of "Jewish soldiers" gone to Spain "to help murder nuns in Lincoln's name."

So he died on her, this changeling, and his secrets with him: "I am in the dark room, waiting to be allowed to see him, to wave to him. I have always been. I have always been waiting. I have always known that if they let me see him, he will never die. I know what the sight of me means to him. Everything." And what the death of him meant to her was a fall into her mother's Irish-Sicilian world of grudge and grievance; of polio, alcoholism and Alzheimer's; of My Little Margie on Friday night television and something more mysterious on the bedroom wall: "a picture made of slats. You turned your head one way: it was the Scourging at the Pillar. Another turn of the head produced Jesus Crowned with Thorns. If you looked absolutely straight ahead, you saw the Agony in the Garden"--the world, in other words, of Mary Gordon's novels, of Final Payments, The Company of Women, Men and Angels and The Other Side.

Though she wouldn't discover Hot Dog, pressed between pages of the Catholic Encyclopedia, until she was 12, which bared breasts, provocative bums and Little Girtie Ginger sex jokes she flushed immediately down a toilet, it was not as if half-orphaned Mary, afraid of mayonnaise and gristle, hadn't known she was partly Jewish. Her father told her his ancestors had been wealthy and cultivated French Jews; that his grandfather had been a rabbi; that his father owned a saloon. (He also told her, or so she thinks she remembers, that he was an only child; that he had gone to Harvard with Walter Lippmann, seen Oxford's dreamy spires in the era of Brides-head Revisited, consorted in Left Bank cafes with poets like Claudel and been blacklisted by the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith, which was why he couldn't hold a job driving a taxi or tending a bar.) In his absence, moreover, her mother's family had always been there to remind her, whenever she was reading, dreaming or otherwise difficult: "That's the Jew in you."

The Jew in her? "For most of my life, I felt I had no right to claim Jewishness for myself because I hadn't suffered for it... No one needed me to be a Jew. But what did I need?" A father, of course, who must have abandoned her because she hadn't been alert enough to love him more: "maybe he was not really dead but was missing or banished, a political exile, and I, by the right word or signal, would be able to recall him." A writing father, from whom she inherited, like a recessive gene, a predisposition to semicolons and parallelisms, argumentative paragraphs that end in punchy accusations and "some dream of purity, or style. Some way of naming and distinguishing. Some taste for exclusion and embellishment. And a desire for a point of silence, emptiness, and rest." A film noir father who "lived as a man drowning," with his missing teeth, torn trousers, broken shoes: "The figure behind every story. The stranger on the road. The double, feared and prized, approaching from the distance." Had he lived, this Shadow Man would have seen to it that his daughter went to college in Quebec, or Belgium, or Ireland, certainly not to godless Barnard, where she became the leftist-feminist and trained investigator who pursues him through these pages: the scholar, historian, literary critic, private eye and Magic Realist who looks for him in library catalogues, census reports, deed bins, immigration archives and other "caves of memory" in New York, New Haven, Providence and Cleveland, in photo albums, microfiche plates and dossiers marked "Loss," "Fascism" and "Kafka." The child Mary feared bicycles and seesaws and merry-go-rounds. The adult, a hedgehog and a fox, will go anywhere by any means to track her father down: "It's a less hopeless prospect for me to imagine that I can find him than to imagine that he can find me. I am, after all, the one who lost him. `She lost her father,' I've often heard people say. `She lost her father when she was very young."'

Bad enough that David "did other things in his life than love me." It turns out he also lied a lot: "Facts nose their way into what I thought was the past like a dog sticking his nose under a lady's skirts. How I resent the insidious, relentless, somehow filthy nudging of these facts." He had been born not in Lorain, Ohio, but in Vilna, Lithuania. His first name had been Israel, not David; his first language Yiddish, not English. Nor was he an only child; sisters stashed in nursing homes and mental hospitals, relatives of whom she had no inkling, possessed snap-shots of little Mary, lovingly inscribed. Rather than owning a saloon, his father had worked in a dry-goods store. Instead of going to Harvard with Walter Lippmann, David was a railroad clerk. Far from rolling Oxford lawns with Evelyn Waugh, or Left Banking with right-wingers, he never graduated from high school, never applied for a passport. He'd even been previously married, to a flapper, and a stepfather to her son. Mary being Mary, she is more jealous of Yiddish than she is of any stepson. Yiddish was an elsewhere her father could go to, leaving her behind without her even knowing it, as if "the legitimate daughter" were "too good" ever to meet "the love child"--this Other's discourse of shtetl and Ellis Island, of goose grease and cabbage leaves and steerage, of Chagall's dancing cows and dark men in fur hats "praying to a God who has no son or mother."

And so an angry daughter in mourning, the cracked bell, must imagine her father's passage from turn-of-the-century Midwest outcast ("the tumult, the vilification and self-hatred, the immigrant's terror, the weak son's dread, the Eastern Jew's American abashment") to the dandy, the autodidact and the convert who tried to pass by reading Matthew Arnold and Walter Pater, by dropping names like Ovid and Dante, by pretending his "natural habitations" were the open spaces of Rome, the dappled woods of the Middle Ages, the majestic palaces of the Renaissance, hoping in the cramped rooms above the store "one day to awake without reproach." Like a porcupine bristling with empathetic intelligence, every needle an optic nerve, Mary sees him flee his past into her future. She'll dream him up all over again, in an ecstatic trance, by meditation and incantation on such objects as his pink shirt, black comb, silver ring and a prayerbook with a lamb's-paw; on such fragmentary texts as Father Coughlin and Father Feeney; on her "police artist" sketch of the face of his "stalker," with H.L. Mencken's mouth, Ezra Pound's hair, Henry Roth's eyes and Bernard Berenson's skull. Because we know and she knows that the shadow will always follow and fall on the fugitive, this luminous exertion breaks the heart:

My father walks out of the meadow to the marble building. He is light with feverish joy but his forehead is cool. Words jump and dance but remain separate, do not swarm. Assisi. Provence. Languedoc. Toscana. Chartres. Words rise up, white and shining, images of iridescent ease, words that do not accuse but absorb accusation. No need to fear, no need to cringe or wait for the reproach. In the white silence rimmed with green or gold, the dream of Europe, swallowing loathsomeness and hatred, insult, terror, dread.

Until it starts again. The buzz and hiss. The torment. "Everything you do is wrong."

This shadow fell as well on her, during The Children's Hour in the fifties, while her father was writing speeches for Joe McCarthy and loving Mary more than God. The political pathologizes the personal:

I hear as if in a dream or through thick fog...the news of the execution of the Rosenbergs. Mrs. Rosenberg in her boxy coat, her hat, her pocketbook, like anybody's mother. I am told she, too, is trying to kill me. She is a mother, but the deaths of children mean nothing to her. Even the death of her own children would mean nothing to her. She is a Communist. This is what Joe McCarthy and Roy Cohn are protecting me from. But every time I see electric wires, a chain-link fence with barbed wire on top, or an electric power plant, sometimes even a water tower, anything sending something from one part of the official world into our private lives, I am afraid for Mrs. Rosenberg. For the electricity in her body. To save me? You don't need to do that to her, I want to tell everybody. It is impossible that people like me will be saved. We will eventually be found out, and we know very well that you will be the ones to do it. We don't know what we've done, but you know. Then we will join Mrs. Rosenberg. Then our bodies will be shot through with electricity. We will be shocked. (I have felt it when I touched the plug of the electric toaster.) We will be shocked to death.

We are reminded of other memoirs, variously apposite. Some Sartre, surely, for the precocious Baby Writer: a bratty Jean-Paul inventing in Words a childhood self appropriate to his speed-freak metaphysics, in the absence of his dead father, gleefully certain he's free of superego. Some Speak, Memory Nabokov, for sheer lyrical anti-Freudian stubbornness: who claimed, as a child in prelapsarian Russia, to have seen through the dining-room window his father levitate, a glorious midair sprawl in a wind-rippled white summer suit against the cobalt-blue noon sky, hoisted by happy peasants, prefiguring the vaulted ceiling, wax tapers, swimming lights, funeral lilies and open coffin. Maybe even Philip Roth, about whom Gordon has written so brilliantly, who came to understand Patrimony during his custodianship of his dying father: a shaving mug handed down by generations of Jewish immigrants; the excrement Philip had to clean up, as once he'd been cleaned up after as a baby; their mutual obsession with memory, never forgetting anything; a distinctive voice: "He taught me the vernacular. He was the vernacular, unpoetic and expressive and point-blank, with all the vernacular's glaring limitations and all its durable force."

Or, for a female point of view on excess, secrecy and dysfunction: Germaine Greer, who tells us in Daddy, We Hardly Knew You that her father Reg had lied his whole life to his wife and children about almost everything, from his ersatz South African origins to his phony was as a cipher clerk at an underground decoding machine in Malta, meaning there had been no excuse at all for his daughter's growing up in Melbourne in a house without music, books, flowers, cheese or love. To which, add Carolyn See, who speaks in Dreaming of a grandfather dying drunk in a snowdrift, a grandmother blowing her head off with a shotgun, a father who churns out hard-core porn under a life-sized snap of a naked Marilyn Monroe and a mother playing tag at night inside a high-voltage power station with a pint of vodka in her Bible; of knowing that it's Thanks-giving because Uncle Bob sets himself on fire, and that it's Easter because you're in Las Vegas, where the Risen Christ is a topless dancer on a skating rink, performing "Spice on Ice."

But Gordon is sui generis, and so is her book: wounding, refulgent and redemptive. "The detective in love with her client," she warns, "usually ends up murdering or murdered." Besides, "We want the log of a voyage with a happy ending. The story we don't want to hear is the story of disintegration, diminishment, humiliation, loss. This is the America that we cannot imagine." Nevertheless: "There is some residue.... You didn't get it from your accusers; it was neither pitiable nor the stuff of shame. Perhaps it was the voice of God. The God of singleness and silence. The font of pure, accepting love." Insisting: "His name is not David, or Israel. It is My Father." Finally: "This man owes me his life, and he will live forever."

In the last astonishing pages of The Shadow Man, having exhumed her father, she reburies him, in an elsewhere of her own choosing, in a ceremony of her own devising, in a coffin strewn with the severed heads of roses. Her friends think she is crazy. Well, so was Joan of Arc. And Simone Weil. And Antigone. And Hildegard von Bingen, the twelfth-century "Sybil of the Rhine," who wrote poems, plays, histories and sacred songs, and refused to yield to local authorities the body of a radical buried in her convent graveyard.

Maybe she just loved him more than God.
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Author:Leonard, John
Publication:The Nation
Article Type:Book Review
Date:May 6, 1996
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