Thursday, January 6, 2011

A Family Way

The Squid and the Whale, Noah Baumbach's film about a family dealing with divorce, is probably not the best thing to watch when your divorce is nearly final. Especially when you have a teenage son. Especially when your family once lived in Park Slope, Brooklyn.

Mercifully, the comparisons end there. When I told Nan that I feared Jeff Daniels' character might be too close to home, she wrinkled her nose. "God, you're nothing like that guy! He's an egocentric jerk."

That's a relief. Daniels' Bernard Berkman and I sport thick graying beards, longish hair, and published a few books that some people remember. But Bernard is emotionally distant, condescending, snide. He lords over his oldest son Walt (Jesse Eisenberg), expecting reverence and obedience. Walt mostly complies, looking up to his father in confused awe, parroting his opinions, seeking his approval. Henry and I have a much different relationship.

My son and I are very close, and I've been there at every critical stage since his birth. Far from trying to indoctrinate him, I share my passions with Henry, no strings attached. He can, and does, take them or leave them. If anything, I grew up with Henry. I'm not the same man I was when we left New York for Ann Arbor. Henry was three and doesn't remember the move, which is good. It was a dark time. I was incredibly angry about coming here, filled with guilt and remorse. This didn't help the marriage, and Nan and I nearly split a few times back then. Somehow, we kept it together.

I simply couldn't leave my family, and I really couldn't leave my son. I still lug my own tattered baggage with fathers and father-figures, and to abandon Henry at such a young age would've meant I learned nothing, tossing him on the same rocks. So I stayed. Fell off the career grid. Worked as a janitor to help make ends meet. Some of you know the story.

My son turns 15 in May. He's pushing 6'3", has a deeper voice than his Dad, and will soon need to start shaving. By staying, I lived through his young life, watching him grow. He got to know his father, for which I remain grateful. He's much more balanced than I've ever been, and hopefully this will feed a happy, prosperous life. He's doing extremely well in school.

Sadly, I won't see Henry on a daily basis. We've talked about what this might mean, and he's been open and accepting about it. In fact, Henry gave me the green light to pursue The Project. "You shouldn't be mopping floors," he said to me. "You should do what you're supposed to do." When I show him videos of various sets, he beams, though some of the references elude him.

"You're not like my friends' Dads," he said, watching me on stage.

"Is that bad?"

Henry laughed and shook his head. Being Weird Dad has its privileges.

The other family members in The Squid and the Whale bear little resemblance to Nan and Trina. While Trina certainly had her troubles, she never matched the turbulence of Frank (Owen Kline), whose anger and attempts at getting attention are alarming to say the least. Trina lives back east on her own, brewing coffee for hipsters to support her music and songwriting. Her songs make me cry. I'm very proud of her.

Like Joan Berkman (Laura Linney in one of her best performances), Nan is a writer whose spouse was published first. Her work at Nanarama is first-rate, and has become a favorite of James Wolcott of Vanity Fair. (In a post about our marriage, Jim wrote "[Nan's] reflections at Nanarama are far more profound and elegant than any exercise in settling scores would be -- the sentences seem laid across the screen like pressed leaves, tiny veins of remembrance that you can run your thumb over.")

Unlike the film, where Joan's book deal and excerpt in The New Yorker leaves Bernard bitter and envious, I fully support Nan's efforts. She's a wonderful writer, and her novel Fly deserves to be published. When it is, I'll lift the first glass to her success. We can't be husband and wife, but we can be colleagues and friends.