Bliss Broyard’s collection of short stories, My Father, Dancing, is so splendidly nuanced that one is tempted to overstate the book’s low-keyed charms. In this era of blockbuster bestsellers and publishing "sensations," the small pleasures of Broyard’s stories are to be savored. The collection is dedicated "in memory of my father," and five of the eight stories are focused on father/daughter relationships. It’s no secret that Bliss Broyard’s father was Anatole Broyard, for many years a respected book reviewer and essayist for The New York Times. He died of cancer in 1990 at the age of 70. His posthumously published Greenwich Village memoir, Kafka Was the Rage, has become something of a literary cult classic.
A biographical background isn’t necessary to appreciate Bliss Broyard’s stories, but knowing of her father’s illness (which he himself wrote about during the last year of his life) unquestionably adds poignancy to the title story, which concerns the final hours of a young woman’s dying father. "My Father, Dancing" is narrated by the daughter, Kate. Her vivid memories of the agile man who taught her a love of music and dancing are contrasted with the morphine-addled cancer patient with whom she now feels disconnected and helpless.
Anyone who has lost a parent or loved one to cancer will know the wrenching endgame scenes that Broyard dramatizes here – the delirium, the patient’s inability to recognize family members, the confused attempts to escape the hospital by tearing loose from the drug and feeding tubes. Yet, none of this is pushed too hard, the sentiment is never overplayed. The quiet moments in "My Father, Dancing" are suffused with a beatific tenderness:
After my mother and the nurse left the room, I sat on the edge of my father’s bed and held his hand between mine, so that my hands were flat and covered his completely, front and back. His hands didn’t seem so large anymore. The skin had the softness that babies and old people share. I thought, Here is something useful I can do. I can protect this hand.
The fathers and daughters in Broyard’s stories take on different names and personas, different careers and psychological hangups. Sometimes they share secrets, as in "Mr. Sweetly Indecent," when a twenty-something daughter spies her father kissing a woman he’s having an affair with. "We can pretend that it didn’t even happen if that’s what you want," he tells his daughter. The story charts the readjustment of her moral compass in regards to her parents’ marriage and the dubious men of her own relationships.
The father in "At the Bottom of the Lake" is an emotionally aloof New York attorney named Frank Baldwin. His daughter Lucy has taken on the project of renovating the family cabin with the help of her fiance. The cabin is a source of nostalgia and pride for Lucy, and her hope is to convince her father and stepmother to once again become fixtures in the lake community. But a dinner party at the cabin deteriorates into drunken recriminations, during which even the reading of a Yeats poem becomes grounds for accusations and suspicion.
Along with the title story, one of the strongest pieces in Broyard’s collection is "The Trouble with Mr. Leopold." The daughter this time is Celia, a junior enrolled at Woodbridge Country Day, a private school in Connecticut. Assigned to write a movie review for the film Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, she enlists the help of her father, "who made his living as a writer and worked at home." The father here is an intellectual version of Ozzie Nelson, somewhat bumbling and distracted, but solicitous with his daughter. When Celia mentions that the assignment is for her teacher, Mr. Leopold, her father responds: "That pompous fool? Why didn’t you say so?" And he proceeds to write the movie review for Celia. Mr. Leopold grades it a C-plus with the comment, "You broke the golden rule of review writing – never reveal a surprise ending." Celia’s father is livid – "How in hell could he possibly have given that paper a C-plus?" – and his authorial pride is bruised.
The humor of the story isn’t forced, and the dialogue never spills over into sitcom territory. Mr. Leopold is an odd and mildly sinister character, a former "image consultant," who offers the young girls in his class "private" office sessions in which he advises them on fashion and comportment. "Show me your knees," he demands of Celia, and then he inspects her legs to determine what style of stockings – patterned or opaque – she is best suited for. This ritual, for which the girls are lined up outside of Mr. Leopold’s office door, has "a whiff of perversion" in Celia’s opinion. When her father learns what’s going on, his animosity is further inflamed and he at last has the moral ammunition to strike back at the teacher.
Two other stories in the collection, "A Day in the Country" and "Snowed in," again involve a student at Woodbridge Country Day. But rather than Celia, we’re introduced to a young girl named Lily, whose father is an orchestra conductor for an opera company. In "A Day in the Country," Lily is in the seventh grade, and the story – perhaps in a conscious nod to Renoir’s short film of the same name – combines a languid country idyll with intimations of seduction. A friend of Lily’s mother is pursued by a friend of Lily’s father, and Lily herself sips beer in the woods with her friends and plays at a kissing game.
In the story "Snowed In," Lily is four years older, and a winter’s afternoon with friends at a house with no parents inevitably descends into drunkenness and watching porno videos. Lily passes out on a bed. A boy who had been crudely flirting with her all afternoon finds her unconscious and removes her clothes. Lily wakes up as the boy is fondling her: "…she saw that what was about to happen wasn’t something that could be turned on or off at whim. And once she saw that, she couldn’t look away."
"Snowed In" is one of three "fatherless" pieces in the collection, along with "Loose Talk" and "Ugliest Faces." In these stories, we meet adolescents and young college-age women who are unmoored from protective family ties, overwhelmed by the urgency of their sexuality, yet disconnected from the men they live with or meet unbidden. "Loose Talk" is a Boston-based story about a woman named Pilar whose relationship with live-in lover Max is crumbling around her as she romanticizes a nonexistent intimacy with a rock singer whom she once met briefly and who now telephones her occasionally in the middle of the night.
"Ugliest Faces," if not the finest story in the collection, is perhaps the most disturbing. Broyard masterfully balances the comical and the grotesque. Bridget is a Boston college student romantically involved with her former English professor. One night after a party, Bridget is driving home with a friend when their car hits a drunken fraternity student named Spike. He walks away from the accident, but not before kissing Bridget on the lips and exchanging phone numbers with her. Attracted and repelled at the same time, Bridget finds herself obsessing about Spike and his medical condition. She also feels compelled to publicly confess – at a faculty dinner party, no less – her involvement in a hit-and-run accident. Her inability to leave well enough alone lands her by the end of the story in bed with Spike and filled with self-loathing.
If Bliss Broyard’s work lacks the slick polish and manic brilliance of Lorrie Moore’s recent bestselling story collection, Birds of America, there is a subdued richness to My Father, Dancing that is satisfying on its own terms. Broyard’s stories are a triumph of sensibility – she is a writer with a fine Chekhovian sense of everyday lives filled not just with quiet desperation, but also quiet joy and quiet redemption.
– Bob Wake