“Americans do disappear. All the time. They fall off the earth.”
– Patterson Wells
Cry Father is a complex novel dealing with loss and reconciliation. From the first scene we realize the world created by Benjamin Whitmer is not ours. How often do we visit a friend who is busy cooking meth while a woman is chained in the bathroom? The world is seedy – made up of drugs and alcohol, bar fights and prostitutes, guns and dangerous jobs “that attract the kind of men who get shaken out of normal life and collected at the bottom.” Patterson Wells is one of those men. He is a good man with a good heart whose life has been taken over by the need to distance himself from the pain of losing his son. This need takes him far from the world he lived before his son, Justin, died. Patterson is now in purgatory, unwilling to move back to a life he knew when Justin was alive and away from the dark side of his depression, and unable to come to terms with the father he had and the father he was.
Whitmer’s Cormac Mcarthy-esque landscape is unforgiving and the characters are frightening. A bar fight is as common as ordering a beer and a shot. Still, amidst the murder and kidnapping and drugs, Patterson never loses his desire to connect or at least to understand why he struggles to connect to the good in his life – that part he has left behind. In this dark place, Patterson is kept grounded by the memory of his son – something he accomplishes by writing incredibly intimate and revealing letters to him. Whitmer uses this technique to provide backstory and much deeper character than a simple man lashing out at God and life. Through the letters comes the understanding that all of his anger and self-destruction won’t bring his son back.
While Cry Father focuses on the darker, seedier side of depression and the lengths Patterson will go to deal with his pain, Whitmer delves into father-son relationships and how unforgiving the disappearance of a father can be. For Patterson, it was his father’s suicide. For Justin, it is Patterson’s admission in a letter that he was “wishing [he] was doing anything other than playing with [him]” that showcases his own disappearance. In both situations, reconciliation seems so far out of reach that the only answer is to drown the sorrow in anger and alcohol or die. In this way, Whitmer shows how pain can keep its knee on a man’s neck.
Ultimately, Cry Father addresses a lack of guidance and how that lack manifests in self-loathing. It questions the trust we put into father figures and forces us to come to terms with the way we ask for that trust from others. It is less about the “sins of the father” than it is the absence of a father. Whitmer’s use of a George MacDonald quote to open Cry Father seems perfectly placed.
“You must interpret the word [father] by all that you have missed in life. Every
time a man might have been to you a refuge from the wind…that was a time
when a father might have been a father indeed.”
Whitmer writes like a dragster with loose lug nuts. It’s a crazy ride which at any moment can become a fiery last breath. You learn to expect things to not just go from bad to worse, but from worse to nightmare. This is the only book I’ve read where I felt physically harmed by the end. And I want to ride again.