Friday, December 27, 2019

Dad's Maybe Book - Tim O'Brien


Dad’s Maybe Book is Tim O’Brien’s first new book in seventeen years – and, sadly enough, it is likely to be his last one. But never say never, because O’Brien didn’t expect the material that comprises Dad’s Maybe Book ever to be published when he began writing the pieces to his two young sons back in 2003. Near the end of this one, though, the seventy-three-year-old author does seem to be formally announcing his retirement when he says, “…no more early (writing) mornings. The daily agenda will be simple: sleep until seven or eight, then settle in to read the books I want to read. At my age, a certain selfishness seems permissible – doing the things I long to do and not what some preacherly internal voice tells me I must do.”

In June of 2003, the fifty-seven-year-old Tim O’Brien was surprised by the gift of a first child, a little boy called Timmy that the author describes as “an eater of electrical cords, a fertilizer factory, a pain in the ass, and a thrill in the heart.” As Timmy entered his sixteenth month of life, O’Brien was struck by the thought that his young son might never really know him. After all, if the actuarial tables were correct, they would not be spending too many more years together.

And that’s when Dad’s Maybe Book was born. But the book didn’t really begin to gain much momentum until O’Brien and his wife learned that they were expecting a second son, a little boy they would call Tad. The book that began as a series of “love letters to his children, along with a few anecdotes and some tentative words of advice” was finally published in late 2019. That Dad’s Maybe Book turned into so much more than that, and that Tim O’Brien (the National Book Award winner for 1979’s Going After Cacciato) fans would enjoy reading it, seems to have caught O’Brien at least a little bit by surprise.

Tim O'Brien
Personally, I’m not surprised by that at all because what O’Brien has written here is as much a terrific memoir as it is a book about parenting or a series of letters to his young sons. Even more importantly for contemporaries of the author, this is a very fine reflection on the aging process and facing the ultimate ending that grows closer for all of us with each day’s passing. The book is largely structured around “Home School” and “Homework” assignments that O’Brien requires  of his sons over the years. Surprisingly, many of those assignments focus on the stories and novels of Ernest Hemmingway, an author whose work O’Brien both admires and dislikes – often  at the same time. It is in these five sections of the book (titled “Timmy and Tad and Papa and I) that O’Brien, a decorated Vietnam War veteran, explains how he became a pacifist and why he despises wars of any type so much today. (He particularly despises those who are so willing to fight wars using someone else’s sons to fight them.)

Dad’s Maybe Book was written over a fifteen-year period during which O’Brien’s sons grew from babyhood to teenagers; a time during which they, their father, the country, and the world changed greatly. It is a hopeful book, but it is often a sad book, one in which the author’s anxiety about being so much older than his children becomes more and more obvious as the years pass. It ends, though, with a comforting piece that O’Brien calls “One Last Lesson Plan,” instructions on just how he want his sons to spend the day together on what would have been the author’ hundredth birthday, October 1, 2046 (wouldn’t it be something if he were still here to spend that day with them). He wants them to play a round of golf together, drink some beer, look at some old family pictures, and “Forgive what needs forgiving, laugh at what needs laughing, and then go home.”

Bottom Line: I saved my favorite quote from Dad’s Maybe Book  for this summation because I think it represents the overall tone of the book so well: “It’s 3:12 a.m., October 1, 2016. I have turned seventy. Daylight will bring slices of cake and cheerful goodwill. It will be like celebrating a hernia.” God help me, but I love this quote.

Review Copy courtesy of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 

14 comments:

  1. Another one to add to my 2020 reading list! Although it might make me cry when I'm reading it. :D

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    1. It has its moments, Lark, but it's also very funny at times. Tim's youngest son is a hoot!

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  2. Wow, now that sounds like a powerful book. We had our two daughters in our early 20s. I've always thought that maybe we should have waited a bit but I remember my doctor saying that we would be 'young' grandparents and there was a heck of a lot to be said for that. And so it's turned out to be. I do however look at some of these celebrities who become fathers in their 60s and 70s and do not envy them one bit. Grandparents - fine. Actual parents? No, I don't think we would have the stamina. That said, I'm kind of guessing that the celebrities would be able to afford a 'lot' of help. LOL

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    1. We had our kids when we were very young, too, Cath. And now I'm happy that we did it that way - as old fashioned as that is today. Our youngest grandchild is already 17, the oldest soon to turn 21. It has been great to get to watch another generation grow up and I wouldn't change the timing for anything.

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  3. Sounds like a book full of great wisdom!

    Like you, I'm glad my husband and I started having kids right after we got married. I can't imagine dealing with a newborn at 44, let alone 54 or older. Just the thought is exhausting!

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    1. I do have some friends who started "second" families in their fifties, and it seemed to give them a new lease on life - for a few years. Then, Father Time told them the score and they had a hard time keeping up with their young children.

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  4. Thank you, thank you for writing this!! I love the sound of this and will buy it.

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    1. It's definitely a keeper for me, Nan, and has found a "permanent" place on my bookshelves.

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  5. And I was an "older" mum, and loved it. I was 34 and 37, and ready. I would have been happy at 30, and may have had four kids, but the way it worked out is really just fine.

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    1. It always does seem to work out just fine, somehow, doesn't it, Nan? I love that it does.

      We were really young parents. My wife was barely 19 when she had our first and had our second daughter almost exactly four years later. We will have been married 50 years come next March, and our oldest turns 49 in late August of 2020. The weirdest feeling to me is that I will have a 50-year-old daughter in 2021 when my wife is still 69.

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  6. I'm interested in this one. I'm curious about the lesson plans--it is fascinating to see what one believes is important to impart to the nex generation.

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    1. O'Brien really worked hard on this one, Jen. I only hope that his boys actually read the book one day. :-) He said somewhere in this one that they are yet to read any of his previous books or even ask him much about them.

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    2. Typical. We often wait to ask our parents important questions. I have so many now that it is too late to ask.

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    3. Isn't that the truth, though? I wonder why we, me included, hesitate to ask the big questions while we have the chance.

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