All fathers are inscrutable, but some fathers — President Ronald Reagan, say — are more inscrutable than others.
In My Father at 100, Seattle's Ron Reagan tackles that behemoth, the "son-of" narrative. Unfortunately, it's something of a quicksand formula that no writer has managed especially well since Edmund Gosse's 1907 Father and Son. Readers understand why: How do you stay at a remove when the subject is the same guy who sets curfew? Or who sleeps with your mom? Or who invites the scorn of your pals for his pro-Vietnam, hippie-hating ways?
In fact, how do you de-layer a dad that Ron Reagan describes as "the inverse of an iceberg?"
"His children, if they were being honest, would agree that he was as strange a fellow as any of us had every met," Reagan writes. "Not darkly strange, mind you. In fact, he was so naturally sunny, so utterly without guile, so devoid of cynicism or pettiness as to create for himself a whole new category of strangeness."
There are more charitable ways to describe an enigmatic poppa than "strange," but you get the picture. Ronald Reagan was excruciatingly uncomplicated. No dark corners, no covert life. Nancy was the lodestar. The children were loved but not always liked.
Ron Reagan is mostly an inspired, ironic writer fixing to color in the lines of a here-I-am, non-ironic father. He wants the world to understand that Ronald Reagan was an engaged and playful, if slightly aloof dad which, come to think of it, describes most dads. The good news is that Ron Reagan is urbane-funny, a cross of Dick Cavett, Dennis Miller, and a self-deprecating style that can be endearing.
The chapters detailing Reagan's early years as a Rock River lifeguard, Dixon football player, and Eureka College student are lovingly written. But wrestle with the political legacy of the Great Communicator with slights about Voodoo economics and the cocaine-financed Nicaraguan contras? Fasten your seat belts, kids.
There are some memoir-driven potholes. Readers learn more about the ancestral O'Regans than should be legally permissible for the non-geneologically inclined. Contextual history is sometimes dumped rather than embroidered into the broader narrative. My Father at 100 is not Daddy Dearest, but it can be snarky. A "C" in American History, Mr. President? Maybe you shouldn't have written that scolding letter to your son when he was an impressionable high school freshman, eh? He might just get even with you.
At times the gotchas sour a compelling tale. "How sharper than a serpent's tooth are the words of an ungrateful child?" President Reagan says to his son. It's a misquote from King Lear, Ron Reagan notes. Oh, dad!
The well-broadcast revelation that Reagan exhibited signs of early Alzheimer's as president is supposition and comes in the final chapter entitled, "Home and Free." It's a sobering coda that is thoughtfully told but nevertheless feels like an add on. Take a minute and picture a scavenging editor at Viking shouting, "Give me meat, Ron. Meat!"
It's too bad because My Father at 100 is a pretty good read.
Ron Reagan will speak about the book at 7:30 p.m. Thursday (Jan. 20) at Town Hall in Seattle.