by James Warner
Numina Press, 2011
200 pages / $14 Buy from Amazon
My father tells this story of when I was a few weeks old. His mother-in-law, visiting one afternoon, happened to observe his baby-changing skills. In the Soviet Union in the late seventies, changing a diaper was as much a matter of necessity as an art form, the most skillful parents able to wrap a baby in such a way that a lace triangle sewn to one corner of the blanket would always fall against the baby’s tender cheek. My father spread some flannelette blankets over his writing desk. The baby—me—was unwrapped, wiped, powdered, dressed in a clean shirt, several layers of cheesecloth serving as a diaper, and wrapped into several sheets and blankets. My grandmother was impressed. Pleased and honored by her praise, validated in his success as a parent, my proud father lifted me off the desk and up high into the air. My grandmother shrieked in horror. In his moment of glory, my father miscalculated the size of the space he had to work with and hit me, head first, against a bookshelf.
Of course I survived, and without any long term damage greater than a tiny scar on my upper lip. The episode became a part of the family mythology, a story that my father tells once in a while, and that I love hearing him tell. My father commands an authoritative presence in my life, and I enjoy being reminded that he, too, is but a human being and has made mistakes. Reading James Warner’s novel All Her Father’s Guns, allowed me to see this incident from another point of view—the way it points to one of the basic dilemmas of fatherhood. It is commonly accepted that a father’s duty is not only to care for, but also to protect his children from harm. And yet this duty comes with unwritten caveats, and any excess of zeal in fulfilling it is potentially harmful. As Cal, one of the two protagonists of the novel puts it, “But sometimes it seems the only way a man could really protect his kids would be to prevent their ever being born.” The responsibility of fatherhood includes, among all else, learning one’s limits and protecting the offspring from everything and everyone including himself.
Cal’s relationship with his daughter Lyllyan reminds me of my father in our family legend, but whereas I see my father’s mistakes to be few and far between, Cal’s zeal in raising his daughter in his own likeness backfires every time. Cal is a die-hard gun enthusiast and Libertarian, and he reports of his daughter’s upbringing: “On [Lyllyan’s] thirteenth birthday, I gave her the complete works of Ayn Rand, bound in sealskin. The Christmas after that, there was a Remington 20-gauge waiting for her under the tree.” In his effort to reach out to Lyllyan, Cal, a former CIA agent and now a venture capitalist, kidnapped his teenage daughter from her mother’s house and took her to Singapore “to learn about the business world.” As a result, he lost custody of his daughter; Lyllyan grew up to completely reject Cal’s politics. When we meet her at the beginning of the novel, Lyllyan is a passionate liberal who lives in Berkeley and works for a non-profit called “Death Penalty Resistance.”
Cal is a staunch anti-abortionist, believing that parenthood is God’s gift and casually referring to the women who go through abortion as “baby-killers.” But when Lyllyan gets pregnant and feels that she and her boyfriend Reid are not ready to have a baby, she opts to have an abortion. Cal finds out about his daughter’s decision long after the fact. When he does finally learn of it, he takes the news as a personal affront and is carried away by his own feelings of anger and betrayal. Enraged at Lyllyan, at her boyfriend Reid, at the entire world, Cal suffers a near fatal traffic accident while driving aggressively. Cal’s anger turns against him, and only on the verge of death does he possibly remember Lyllyan, thinking: she “still needed me, my guidance and love.” This realization comes—if it comes—too late, after the decision he has made in anger sets off another chain of events that will lead to his ultimate demise.
Warner constructs this novel in such a way that even though Cal’s observations are reported to us in the first person, they are an imagining of the overarching first-person narrator, Reid, Lyllyan’s boyfriend. Reid Seyton, a recent Ph.D. graduate of the fictional Department of Theory at UC Berkeley, has lost his own father at the age of seven. Born and raised in Britain, Reid is reinventing his life in the United States. He is enamored of Cal as a possible father figure. As a narrator of Cal’s story, Reid is as sympathetic to his character as a narrator can be, trying to imagine Cal’s life with utmost respect to Cal’s professed values. Reid cannot know what goes through Cal’s mind when he’s lying in a ditch watching his car go up in smoke; and so when we see Cal’s thoughts in that dramatic moment turn to Lyllyan and to his love for her, what we really get is Reid’s projection of what an ideal father would think.
Pondering the complex puzzle of narration in All Her Father’s Guns, I’ve come to realize that this novel is not so much about Cal’s behavior as Lyllyan’s father, but rather an exploration of Reid’s deep anxiety about fatherhood. When we first meet Reid and Lyllyan, they are completely unprepared to become parents, and the novel depicts Reid’s journey to the state of being that would make parenthood a possibility for him. This includes finding both financial and mental stability, and Cal, almost accidentally, becomes a key figure who helps him get there. Reid has botched the university department politics and has a slim chance of a proper academic career, and Cal helps him to get a job in the business world. More importantly, Reid needs Cal as his champion when Reid stops believing in himself.
In his role as Reid’s mentor, Cal doesn’t have the vocabulary to go beyond the clichés. He spews readily: “Don’t be afraid to get out there and make your own mistakes,” “Play to win,” “You need to get your head in the game.” Reid is savvy enough to take these for what they are worth; but to him it’s the sentiment that matters. Unwittingly, Cal performs the role of a supportive father much more effectively for Reid than he has ever been able to do for Lyllyan.
As a narrator, Reid faithfully records Cal’s words and actions while simultaneously ascribing to the man thoughts and feelings of an idealized father, a father who would put his children first in everything he does, the kind of father Reid wishes he had and the kind of father Reid hopes to become. A reader attune to this psychological game of Reid’s can easily distinguish Cal’s own ludicrous dogma on fatherhood: “nothing brings more security to a father’s heart than hearing his daughter operate the slide of a shotgun” from statements that Reid makes on Cal’s behalf. Waking up from a coma in the hospital, Reid has Cal think of Lyllyan first: “Is Lyllyan here? Was my first thought. Is she OK? When I tried to ask, I couldn’t open my mouth.” A narrator less personally invested in presenting Cal as a loving father might’ve imagined Cal’s first thought in that moment as having to do with, say, having a gun nearby.
Writing about Cal, Reid exorcises his fears of fatherhood by managing simultaneously to portray Cal as the worst kind of parent (lost custody, hates daughter for getting an abortion) and to rehabilitate him by imagining him guided by best intentions. Idealizing Cal, Reid demands of him to be a parent first; a parent before a businessman, a politician, a man. Every child, I suppose, needs at some point to believe that their parents are parents first, and all other aspects of their personality are defined by their parenthood. When my father retells the swaddling incident, he reminds me of the limitations built into that kind of wishful thinking. A father’s love for his offspring does not automatically make him immune to human fallibilities. Warner’s achievement in his novel is to create in Cal a character of such complexity and vitality that allows Reid to draw strength even from Cal’s failures. Even more impressive is Warner’s ability to create in Reid a narrator who, while reliable in reporting the facts, is unreliable in his psychological portrait of Cal in such a way that becomes characteristic of Reid’s own emotional needs.
I doubt that Cal, on the verge of death, did think about his daughter—but I don’t doubt that Reid would. Reid, as a father, will be far more emotionally available to his children than Cal ever could. If, thinking about this novel, I kept gauging the father-daughter dynamic against my own relationship with my father, it was not because of the things my father had in common with Cal, but of what my father had in common with Reid’s version of Cal. I finish the novel with the sense of delight that I got to witness a mental transformation of a man preparing to become a father. I close the book with a sense of appreciation for the intense anxiety of fatherhood and a deeper understanding of my own relationship with my father.
Olga Zilberbourg is San Francisco-based writer and editor with roots in St. Petersburg, Russia. Her fiction has appeared in Narrative Magazine, Santa Monica Review, Mad Hatters’ Review, elimae and other print and online magazines. In Russian, her second short story collection appeared in 2010 from St. Petersburg’s Limbus Press. She an associate editor at Narrative Magazine. Her personal website is www.zilberbourg.com.