What We Lost, by Dale Peck

The nebulous sadness of a life denied
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The Independent Culture

Dale Peck has a reputation for cutting literary throats with the ruthlessness of a fox in a chicken-run. He ruffled feathers with his first novel, the middle-finger waving Fucking Martin - repackaged as Martin and John in America - and has gone on to sharpen his teeth as a critic for the New Republic. There he described Rick Moody as "the worst writer of his generation" and continued the turkey-shoot at Faulkner's "incomprehensible ramblings", Nabokov's "sterile inventions", and the "stupid - just plain stupid - tomes of DeLillo".

"I am extremely savage," says Peck the Critic amid the blood and feathers. To which the bruised and battered writer Stanley Crouch replies, "Dale Peck is a troubled queen". Boys, boys!

The eye-gouging and self-absorption of the American urban literary scene is a far cry from the peaceful pastoral nostalgia that makes up much of Peck's "story of my father's childhood", What We Lost. The hatchet jobs here are mostly of axe against wood during fence-post maintenance and other rural activities on a dairy farm in Greenville, upstate New York, in the mid-1950s.

Dale Peck's father grew up in a one-room house in Long Island with seven brothers and sisters, a violent mother: "thick and squat as a tree trunk shorn of its canopy by a bolt of lightning", and an alcoholic father addicted to cough medicine. When Dale senior was 12, his own father, addled with drink and remorse, kidnapped him and deposited him with his uncle Wallace on his farm. Here "the fluid sunlight pulses through the trees like liquid amber" and the severe routine of farm work forges moral strength and purpose in the boy.

He discovers simpler values, an empathy with the land, and the power of silence and reflection that scrub clean the wounds of abuse. Inexplicably, when his mother arrives to reclaim him after a year and a half, he returns to the brutalities of his family life. Then one night, after sitting for hours outside bars waiting to carry his drunken father home, something snaps and he beats his father almost to death in a rage of hatred, shame and loss.

It's a powerful, shocking scene of expiation; but perhaps the most resonant and effective writing comes in the second part of the book. Dale Peck junior, the writer, makes an appearance with his father when they revisit the farm 40 years later. It's narrated from the point of view of a girl who makes them lunch. Peck senior's gentle, flirtatious paternalism and wistful enthusiasm for the simple routines of good country people is hopelessly sentimental. Both Pecks perceive missed opportunities that were never sustainable, and are left with the nebulous sadness of a life denied to them.

In this beautifully crafted memoir, Dale Peck puts the pieces of his father's broken past together. Memory and imagination form a narrative bridge between father and son, and something good and strong and lasting is created from breakdown and violence.