The author Lamar Herrin

Lamar Herrin, Father Figure. Fomite: Burlington, Vt., Oct. 2016. 264 pg.

Mothers and fathers loom large in our personal mythology, partly because we can never fully know who these people were before we entered their picture. Searching for a deeper parental understanding is the driving force of Lamar Herrin’s recently published seventh novel, Father Figure.

The story, set largely in the red-clay South (most likely Kentucky), unfolds from the viewpoint of Jay Langley, whose father has died five months earlier. In their small town, Bob Langley had been a local legend, as a youth a four-letter man who’d captained every team he was on, but mostly a dazzling center fielder destined for the majors. Tall and handsome, affable with an irresistible smile (which “in towns like my father’s went a long way”), Bob Langley was Russellville’s hero, its golden boy. He married an equally charming girl, Fran, the couple seemingly twinned in their perfection.

But with the Second World War pulling men from their families, Bob shamefully realized that his job in a munitions factory was in fact a privileged deferment. Against his wife’s wishes, he enlisted, and returned, after the Battle of the Bulge, having lost a leg. The postwar Bob was tight-lipped and harsh, becoming a calculating and wealthy developer, thus somehow taking revenge for his loss on the entire town that had lionized him. 

Father Figure describes Jay’s obsessive quest to reconcile these contrasting images of his father, one idolized, one feared. A history major in college, Jay had avoided the family business, drifted from job to job, married and divorced; other than his fascination with the dying family line, he’s a bland character, his most interesting feature being his narration. Or his speculation: since Jay’s repeated questioning of his sister Judy and townspeople yields little new insight, he invents possible life scripts out of a few sure details. 

These imagined scenes are unquestionably compelling—his parents’ elopement; his own conception (two versions, two possible fathers); the final days his father struggled through the Belgian winter. But there are also known memories: just three times when his father seemed to take interest in him; more frequent recollections of the man’s ferocity, stamping away on his crutch; an impromptu and unexplained family car trip to follow a river north.

Herrin surrounds Jay with relatives more engaging than he—besides his parents, his sister, ex-wife, elderly Aunt Louise, and older cousin Hugh. Their fondness for Jay doesn’t seem grounded in any reason beyond “family”; but perhaps this is one way we recall our pasts—through the presence of others, ourselves a cipher at the center.

Bob Langley’s youthful “legend” and “natural” superiority may seem distasteful to those not sports- or hero-obsessed; Jay’s pursuit of his father’s secrets—and mere recognition, let alone love—necessarily futile. Jay’s focus on the past deprives him of his present, where he’s emotionally stingy and simply lost. But the wealth of his world, not him personally, is what we’re absorbed in.

And beyond the storyline itself, Herrin gives us two fertile landscapes to wander in. One is the physical setting, richly evoked in every scene. There’s the now-declining town, from the “stately homes, with their ample verandas” in the shade of pecan trees to the “weather-grayed shacks, with sand and no grass for a front yard.” And the land itself: flat fields, eroded and sandy; pervasive “withered kudzu”; a “sour stench” from the lumber mills. Other odors, too, by a remote mountain lake –– the “distinct delight” of the “smell of the seasons.”

In Jay’s journey, water figures often, whether a small pool sparkling at night or the sluggish Mississippi. Herrin’s prose style continually envelops and seduces: “Real rivers mixed darkness and light, raised winds and cut continents with their onrushing flow, and the world could be divided into two camps of people, those who had crossed them and those who hadn’t.”

This brings us to the second captivating “landscape”—the interior one, the perceptions that come from Herrin through and beyond the narrator. The emotions go from distinct (the “outraged sister,” the “long-suffering mother”) to understated (a phone call to former wife, Karen, “as though to register a claim”). Ironically, Jay’s conjectures to seek meaning parallel his father’s attempt to make sense of a senseless war by imagining he’s in a personal standoff with one German. But then that too is Jay’s fancy.

Jay approaches understanding by analogy—to sports, hunting, business—as another way of knowing, possibly feeling. But beyond his single consciousness, however imaginative, Herrin opens us to a magnificent, wider scope, that of generations, familial relationships, inevitable change and decay. There’s no nostalgia here, but surely a recognition that any past glows more brightly than the present. • 

Barbara Adams, a regional arts journalist, teaches writing at Ithaca College.

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