Father-Son Bonding, With Homer as Guide

Jay Mendelsohn is a retired research scientist, a reductionist, a simplifier, a solution-finder, for whom “x is x,” not a weaver of tales but a doubter of them, with “a reverence for struggle” and a love of baseball because of its “geometries.” He had been involved in the designing of early target recognition systems, a technological task he described to his son as “teaching computers to see,” and believes that there is “a deep and inscrutable essence to things” if only one took the trouble to find it. He is appalled by the flux of life, can’t stand traffic and has to predict every part of a journey before he sets out on it, even identifying the final parking spot before he leaves. It seems to his son that for Jay, as Poseidon was for Odysseus, “some implacable traffic god” was always against him.

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Sonny Figueroa/The New York Times

And so the book arranges itself around the polarities of fixity and flux, certainty and doubt, rigidity and tenderness. Like Odysseus, Mendelsohn sees in existence a pattern of eddies and back-turnings, an endlessly shifting density field in which identity and truth come and go. Homer describes Odysseus as poikilometis, meaning dapple-skilled, spotty-skilled, essentially various. That beautifully flickering self is at the heart of Homer’s meaning in the “Odyssey,” which, as Mendelsohn says, effectively buries the “Iliad,” moving beyond the beefcake vision of the heroes at Troy to something much more subtle and adaptable — and modern. Odysseus’ unreliability is his virtue.

Mendelsohn père cannot see that. For him Odysseus is not a real hero because he lies and cheats on his wife, tells false, self-inflating stories, is always relying on the gods to get him out of trouble, is not really all-man in the way of more singular, self-sufficient heroes, but is always shifting into difference, like the shimmering polychrome cloths with which the Homeric world was entranced.

Mendelsohn is too attentive a writer to remain content with that straight-up characterization, and, as the book evolves, his father’s rigidity starts to fracture and dissolve. Jay seemed so hard but “every now and then he would say things or let slip a remark that was so unexpectedly tender or generous or poetic that you’d be confounded — would find yourself in a state of what the Greeks called aporia, ‘helplessness’ … ‘without a path.’”

Jay begins to treat his son not as a son but as another man, with the mysterious quality on those first, changed interactions, not of manliness or man-to-manliness, but of humility and gentleness. He allows himself to talk in front of the seminar about his life-shaping love for Daniel’s mother. Daniel learns that when his father was young a beautiful boy had fallen in love with him and that Jay had in that experience come to understand something of his son’s own homosexuality. It emerges that Jay’s childhood was deeply isolated and that his early life had been dogged by defeat and repeated failures of nerve, so that time and again he had not dared to embrace the life he might have had. His awkward, prickly, undemonstrative self became the price of a protected vulnerability. It was not Odysseus who was unheroic but Jay Mendelsohn; and his son comes to love him for that fragility.

“The best way to tell a certain kind of story,” Mendelsohn says of Homer but knowing that it applies also to what he has written, “is to move not straight ahead but in wide and history-laden circles.” Turning back and looking again, confessing ignorance and accommodating failure is truer to human experience than any mathematician’s diving for the answer. A consciousness of mortality, the great and final failure, plays its part. “Good teaching is like good parenting,” he says of himself and of the man his father was slowly allowing himself to become; both “arise from an acceptance of the inevitability of death.” And it is with Jay’s death, about a year after the seminar and the cruise, that the book ends, as it must.

Homer calls Odysseus the man of “twists and turns,” but he is also the man who knows “the minds of many men.” The two qualities are one: Indirection is the route to understanding and the shimmering, beautiful, dapple-skilled intelligence of this book, fueled by the belief that what you feel is intimate with what you know, is all the evidence of that you will ever need.

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