Sue Miller writes extraordinary novels — detailed, pellucid, unsentimental books full of sex and death, family ties and family feuds — all the rich, messy personal stuff that has fueled the confessional-memoir boom of the past decade.
It’s a little surprising, therefore, that Miller’s first attempt at a memoir, The Story of My Father, is so unpolished and flat. Why does this book, which covers much of the same emotional ground, lack the panache and precision that have characterized her fiction?
The rudiments of the story are promising. One morning in 1986, Miller was awakened in her Boston home by a phone call from the police. Her father, James Nichols, had been picked up in the pre-dawn hours wandering through the countryside of western Massachusetts; he didn’t remember where he’d left his car, or how he’d gotten there. Miller rushed to retrieve him and found an unshaven vagrant in shabby clothes, a man who bore little resemblance to the neat, scholarly father she knew. She had noticed he’d been a little spacey lately, but this development was new; she was shocked. Then, curiously, angry. So began an emotional roller coaster that was to last even beyond his death five years later.
The diagnosis was Alzheimer’s, the all-too-familiar brain disease marked by dementia so acute that some sufferers eventually forget how to walk, talk, and eat. When he could no longer care for himself, Nichols moved to a retirement facility near Miller. She sewed labels on his socks, took him on outings, and watched his symptoms progress from harmless hallucinations to sexual aggressiveness, agitation, and occasional violence. On her visits, she found him shuffling through the corridors, later crawling, later tied to a chair in his room. She sang hymns to him in his final days and was present when he died, ”a wizened tiny form in diapers in his bed, all beaky nose and clutching hands.”
Death was a release for her father, but not for Miller. Even after scattering his ashes, she found that images of him in his final years had supplanted earlier, happier memories. It was, in part, to resurrect her pre-Alzheimer’s father that she decided to write this book. Who, exactly, was he?
A tough question and, alas, the answer isn’t exactly riveting. To all appearances, his was a life without hills and valleys and weather. Raised in a stuffy WASP household, Nichols was ordained as a minister, married Miller’s overbearing mother, raised four children, taught religion, renovated a cat-infested New Hampshire summer cottage — and never had much to say about any of it. He liked to fish and he liked to read; he enjoyed listening to Garrison Keillor on the radio. When confronted with the symptoms of Alzheimer’s, he reacted with charming equanimity: ”Doggone,” he said. ”I never thought I’d lose my mind.” He was genial, genteel, mild, and modest; he was shy, reserved, remote. Beyond self-effacing, he was, according to Miller, self-erasing.
In the 17 years since her first novel, Miller has created dozens of memorable, confounding, nuanced characters. Her portraits — from ”The Good Mother”’s inhibited yet sensual Anna Dunlap to the imperious Lily Maynard of ”The Distinguished Guest” — are elegant, vivid, and psychologically sophisticated. Miller can put imaginary people in imaginary worlds and make them marry, divorce, argue, fall in love, change, grow, die. And she can make us believe it all.
Nonfiction requires other skills. And, by definition, it demands the abandonment of the very gift — invention — that has made Miller such a compelling writer. For whatever reason — his opacity, her own grief, restrictions of the genre — she doesn’t quite nail her dad’s story. The book’s structure becomes strangely flabby as she flounders: There’s a little family history here, some Alzheimer’s research there, interspersed with descriptions of her travails as caregiver. Though sporadically moving, it never adds up to anything significant. It’s not in the same league with John Bayley’s lovely ”Elegy for Iris” or Philip Roth’s masterpiece ”Patrimony.” Miller’s final, slightly tortured (and, from a reader’s perspective, deflating) conclusion is that there wasn’t much of a story to her father’s life, at least not a story that she, with her analytical, post-Freudian novelist’s bent, could effectively relate.