Review by Anthony Kapolka
On the surface, Don Waters’ writing is a choppy amalgamation that stitches many distinct narratives together. These Boys and Their Fathers (University of Iowa Press, October 2019) shouldn’t work as a memoir, and Waters knows it. In fact, he tells us, “It’s a strange beast of a thing.” Yet, there’s a definite beauty to it.
The opening details his experiences visiting surfer Greg Noll and his son Jed. Greg had been a surfing friend of Don’s dad, a famous surfing friend. From the encounter, Don gets a magazine article, a surfboard, and an admiration for Noll’s faculties as a dad. Don tells Jed, “The only thing [my father] ever showed me was how to vanish.”
A second source of material is Don’s fascination with another Don Waters, a pulp adventure novelist who wrote three generations earlier while raising his daughter, Gypsy, on a sailboat. His wife was just as interesting, twice sister-in-law to Kenneth Burke. Here, Don’s detective work pays off and he supplies us with meaningful details about that Waters family.
A third section stands alone; he includes a short story (fictive? Don does have his father Bob’s slim autobiography on which to draw) narrated from his father’s perspective. The shift is a bit jarring. Herein Bob suffers from being the one who doesn’t know his own son. He misspells his name in that first letter (It’s Donny, not Donnie.) And, when women find out he left his son, they leave also.
Don comments frequently about his writing, as he’s writing. “Years have passed since I’ve built a surfboard with Greg and Jed. In that time, I’ve written a short story from my father’s point of view, looked into the life of another writer, woven together three parts of a memoir…. Now I need an ending.”
The ending is, properly, another outing mirroring that initial attempt to recreate and experience something that his father had done frequently, this time, surfing at The Ranch. Or perhaps, more properly, the ending is in the Epilogue.
The whole of Don Waters’ memoir brings to mind Frankenstein’s creature: assembled from parts; shouldn’t be alive; yet lives and invokes great compassion. The author follows the creature’s journey as well, discovering his father through his father’s writings; looking in on another family for instructions never passed to him directly; ultimately, desiring family. In his quest, Don makes an important observation—for every fatherless child like Charles Manson, Saddam Hussein, and Ted Bundy, there is a Jack Nicholson, Eric Clapton, or Edgar Allen Poe. Don Waters has clearly escaped the fate of Frankenstein’s creature, and his memoir provides a valuable road map for others who may feel equally adrift at sea.