Brow Beat

Dave Itzkoff’s Top 5 Complicated Father-Son Relationships

Most of us have been deeply embarrassed by our parents at one time or another. But few of us have been called upon to rescue our drug-addled fathers from a Seventh Avenue flophouse, as New York Times writer Dave Itzkoff once did.

In his new memoir, Cocaine’s Son , Itzkoff describes his relationship with his father, Gerald a shambling, garrulous fur trader with a persistent coke habit and his adult attempts to make peace with the man. The book, which grew out of a widely praised New York magazine essay from 2005 , is out today from Villard.

We asked Itzkoff (whose wife, in the interest of full disclosure, is a friend of mine) to name five literary father-son relationships that influenced his writing. Here’s his playlist:

Homer and Bart Simpson, The Simpsons
: There’s a scene from a vintage 1990s Simpsons episode in which Lisa, Marge, and Maggie are off on their own adventure, leaving Homer and Bart by themselves in the house. Homer seems almost elated as he declares to Bart: “A whole week of just father and son,” to which he adds, after a few awkward moments: “See you at dinner.” I remember watching this with my father and both of us laughing at the authenticity of it sometimes being left alone together is satisfying enough. Like a great yellow-skinned bald man said, “It’s funny ‘cause it’s true.”

Michael and Vito Corleone, The Godfather : With a father who earned his living through an old-fashioned trade selling raw fur, rather than pretending to sell olive oil that was, in its own way, a front for something more illicit, I could easily relate to Michael’s desire not to get drawn into the family business. Bu,t even more so, I identified with Michael’s desire to protect his hospitalized pop from the machinations of Sollozzo, who regards the old man’s assassination as simply business, and the corrupt Capt. McCluskey. (Oof, that punch!) The rush of satisfaction I feel every time I see Michael pull the trigger on those S.O.B.’s is incalculable, easily worth the cost of a human soul.

Philip and Herman Roth, Patrimony : You would think that the progenitor of the man who gave us such polymorphously perverse delights as Portnoy’s Complaint and Sabbath’s Theater would be an irresistible figure in his own right, but what makes Roth Sr. fascinating in this memoir is his ordinariness, in both life and in death. In unembellished and often unsparing language, Roth the younger chronicles his father’s final months as he is gradually incapacitated and eventually killed by a brain tumor. The author isn’t trying to convince you of the dignity or bravery of his father’s struggle, only the inevitability that, if we’re lucky, we get to outlive our parents. There’s no lesson in that except, as Roth writes, “They are gone and, as yet, we aren’t.”

Nic and David Sheff, Beautiful Boy
: The mirror image of Patrimony , as a father observes the degeneration of his son (in this case under the influence of an addiction to methamphetamine), and concerned not with death but with parenthood, which to me is just as frightening and essentially unknowable until it happens to you. The details that still haunt me about the Sheffs’ story aren’t the excruciating traumas that result from Nic’s drug habit and David’s efforts to get him clean, but the affectionate trivia that David recalls about Nic from his pre-addiction life: the He-Man toys he used to play with; the Disney movies he once memorized. If you don’t believe your parents quietly memorize every detail about you, it’s an utterly heartbreaking way to find out.

The son and father in Harry Chapin’s “Cat’s in the Cradle”
: Tell 10 people that you’re working on a project about unresolved paternal issues and, invariably, six of them will invoke this song, four will sing it to you and two will tell you with total sincerity that Cat Stevens wrote and sang it. So we might as well embrace the anonymous duo at the heart of this tune as the most culturally influential parent and child this side of the Hamlets (or maybe Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker). We learn almost nothing about them by the song’s end, except Dad’s job involves flying planes (air marshal? flight attendant?) and the son’s children evidently have compromised immune systems (no doubt due to an excess of schmaltz in their diets). But you’ve wept at the sound of it and so have I, so clearly we all feel guilty about something. Now excuse me while I call my dad to see how he’s doing.