Dad’s Maybe Book

  • By Tim O’Brien
  • Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • 400 pp.
  • Reviewed by Michael McCarthy
  • November 22, 2019

A weighty, wonderful reflection on parenthood from an award-winning novelist and Vietnam vet.

Dad’s Maybe Book

Lots of parents keep journals about their kids’ lives, offering heartfelt insights about first teeth, kindergarten graduations, and tee-ball championships. The children grow up, and when visiting Mom and Dad in Boca Raton over the holidays, old journals are dragged out and wobbly hard drives fired up. From there, things get wistful.

Call the exercise a memory bridge — a way to walk from what we remember about ourselves to what those around us truly understand.

With his profoundly wonderful Dad’s Maybe Book, Tim O’Brien takes a decidedly different approach to journaling and memoir. In 2004, shortly after becoming a father for the first time at age 58, O’Brien set out to record the lives of his two sons to help them — and him — remember.

He admits there was no bookish impulse. “My audience,” he says, “if there were to ever be an audience, was two little boys and no one else.”

Anyone who thinks O’Brien might do an easy literary backstroke into the lake of instructional memoir is mistaken. That’s not how the author of The Things They Carried and In the Lake of the Woods, among others, is wired. His mission is relevance, because, “If I were to vanish from their lives at this instant, my sons would have no recollection of their father’s face or voice or human presence.”

With this premise, he creates a new type of parenting memoir, largely ignoring the day-to-day and instead reflecting on what happened long before the boys drew their first breath. O’Brien’s gift to his sons and the reader is universal insight about his life via war, parenting, and the art of writing.

Vietnam marks the pages of Dad’s Maybe Book like literary napalm. O’Brien doesn’t want his kids to forget he played a part in a war five decades ago that forever changed him. “I cannot unlive my life,” he writes. “I was a soldier. I came home…I yearned to express my own helplessness in the face of memory and my own fear of telling patriotic lies.”

The old soldier wants his sons to understand that Vietnam is a symbol for all senseless conflict. We’ll never run out of reasons to kill each other, and “daughters and sons and mothers and wives and lovers must also be counted among the mutilated.”

He believes nothing really ends with a peace treaty. Like a genetic mutation, war is in us, and we pass it along.

We also reflect the deeds of our parents. In one passage, O’Brien writes about his father as if he were a 1950s TV archetype of perfection. He tossed baseballs with his son for hours. He spent numerous Christmas Eves assembling model trains and Erector sets. He hauled books from the public library for a steady diet of youthful reading.

Booze, however, trolled their household. His father was treated for alcoholism, O’Brien writes, but “the treatment didn’t take…and things went on in our tiny house as they had gone on before and as they would go on for decades.”

O’Brien was so afraid of his father that he removed all of the sharpest knives from the kitchen and hid them under his mattress.

Above all, this is a book about the art of storytelling. Through the prism of fatherhood, O’Brien tells his own stories beautifully. He urges his boys — and all of us — to tell our tales “carefully and vividly and honestly and bravely.”

Years from now, when he’s long gone, O’Brien hopes his stories endure. He and his sons can “revisit one another in the only meeting places that will be left for us, which will be in dream, in memory, and in the pages of a book such as this one.”

In 2046, on the novelist’s 100th birthday, he’d like his sons to pay tribute to him by playing a round of golf. He knows they’ll be in their 40s by then, greying at the temples. O’Brien urges them to reminisce between shots and laugh about how their father is still meddling in their lives.

After golf, he suggests Timmy and Tad have a beer and maybe look at some photos. “Forgive what needs forgiving,” O’Brien instructs, “laugh at what needs laughing, and then go home.”

There’s likely not a better recipe for a glorious afternoon — or a good life — as this.

Michael McCarthy is the editor-in-chief of DC magazine.

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