Broyard's 'Father': escaping a shadow

July 25, 1999|By NORAH VINCENT | NORAH VINCENT,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

"My Father, Dancing," by Bliss Broyard. Knopf. 224 pages. $22.

Though one should be wary of reading too much of a writer's personal life into her fiction, with Bliss Broyard, it's nearly impossible not to do so. This debut short story collection, written by the daughter of the late New York Times editor and literary critic Anatole Broyard, is fixated on the relationship between a pedantic, distant, arrogant and often callous father and his alienated, approval-seeking daughter, who has a festering Elektra complex the size of her father's ego.

Not only is the collection dedicated to Broyard's father, but five of its eight stories revolve around a tortured father-daughter relationship. In its own semi-confessional way this seems to be Broyard's "Daddy Dearest" -- and what better revenge could an underestimated daughter wreak on her critical pop than to write a critically acclaimed critique of him.

The victory is doubly sweet: She emerges from daddy's shadow as a gifted fiction writer in her own right and publicly skewers her father's pretensions in his old domain, the book review. A straight memoir wouldn't have inflicted half the sting.

Consider the kind of antipathy that must have festered in Broyard fille for her to write the beautifully sardonic and nimble story "The Trouble With Mr. Leopold." In it, Celia, a junior at a prestigious private high school, comes home with an assignment to write a film review.

She is having difficulty doing the assignment, so she enlists her father's help. Her father is, of course, a hideously dismissive and condescending writer who says things like: "It can't be too famous. I've never heard of it." After Celia spends the evening writing and re-writing her paper, always submitting the various drafts for dad's approval, her father finally throws up his hands in disgust and insists on writing the paper himself, since he can't allow a child of his to turn in such a "piece of garbage."

Now, having already puffed the man into a turgid boor, here Broyard twists the plot and the knife and punctures him with her trademark scorn: When Celia gets her paper back the next week she gets a C-plus on it.

In the story, "Mr. Sweetly Indecent," another daughter meets her equally obnoxious father for dinner after she catches him kissing his mistress on the street. Here, again, Broyard's sharp eye for the most indicative details tells us everything we need to know about the relationship between this slithery man and this angry, disillusioned young woman: "I meet my father in a restaurant. He knows why I have asked to meet him, but he swaggers in anyway. It's a place near his office and he hands out hellos all around as he makes his way over to my table. 'My daughter,' he explains to the men who have begun to grin, and he can't resist a wink just to keep them guessing."

"My Father, Dancing" is a startlingly good and enjoyable literary debut from a writer whose ripening talents exist quite apart from, or perhaps even in spite, of her father's famous name. Rainy day readers and Granta subscribers alike will take enormous pleasure in Bliss Broyard's laser sharp vision of tortured human relationships.

Norah Vincent, who lives in New York City, is co-author of "The Instant Intellectual: The Quick and Easy Guide to Sounding Smart and Cultured" (Hyperion, 1998). Her work has appeared in the New Republic, the New York Times, Lingua Franca and many other publications. She writes a regular column for the national gay and lesbian news magazine the Advocate.

Pub Date: 07/25/99

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