When I first saw Eric Puchner’s GQ story, “Schemes of My Father” last week, I ignored it. Too close to home, I figured. From the sounds of the title it could have been my old man he was writing about. So I stayed away, but eventually, I went back, read the lead and was hooked. Turns out Puchner’s father wasn’t much like mine at all–a schemer of a different color–but I’ll tell you this: I aspire to write as well as Puchner. Here is is describing his father’s pretensions, having moved his family from Baltimore to California:
Growing up, I’d more or less sub scribed to his Gatsbyesque invention of himself as an aristocrat. There were the ascots, of course, usually paired with tweed. He liked to go bird hunting on the weekends, despite being a terrible shot. For a brief period he insisted we dress up for dinner every night, which for my brother and me meant coats and ties. He boarded horses in the country and prodded my oldest sister to take up polo. He refused to let us wear baseball caps indoors and liked to keep a Manwich-thick wad of cash in his billfold, flaunting it in front of cashiers. Even before the ascots and the polo, he’d saddled his children with increasingly absurd names meant to conjure riding breeches and hunt clubs: Alexander, Laurel, Pendleton, and his pièce de résistance, my own: Roderic. I didn’t know that my dad had been one of the poorest kids at his wealthy private school in Milwaukee, and so I’d always accepted these affectations as part of my father’s identity, as essential to who he was as his love of bratwurst.
Now, though, his blue-blooded habits began to seem absurd. For the first time I saw them in the same light as my own desperate attempts to fit in, which had begun to seem absurd to me as well. Despite an aggressive marketing campaign, I’d failed to become Californian in a way that would convince anyone but the drunkest tourist. I wore jungle-print Vans and shirts with wooden buttons and Wayfarers that were also made, inexplicably, of wood. I had a white Op poncho that I liked to wear with nothing underneath, thinking I looked like Jim Morrison on the cover of Morrison Hotel. My moment of reckoning came when I was at the mall with my best friend, Will, another East Coast transplant, and some surfers called me a “dingleberry.” I had to ask Will what a dingleberry was, and his graphic description made such an impression on me that I went home and took off all my clothes and hid my jungle-print Vans at the back of the closet.
Soon after that, I bought my first punk record—Los Angeles, by X—and began to discover another California, one far removed from the beach bunnies and slack-eyed surfers who’d seemed to me like the epitome of West Coast cool. Minutemen, Black Flag, the Dream Syndicate: The songs coming out of my turntable were about as unsunny as could be, noisy and weird and full of anger at the well-tanned rich. And the singers, Californians themselves, weren’t afraid to be smart. I started dressing like my old self again, slipping off to Hollywood clubs whenever I could, amazed at all the pale, black-booted kids pogoing in flannel. It was a culture as distant from my dad’s beach-club ambitions as you can possibly imagine.
* * * *
It’s this real California—and not the one my father invented for us—that I still call home, one that’s closer to my heart than any place on earth. There’s something about my father’s love for the state, no matter how misdirected it was, that seems to have seeped into my blood. Or perhaps it’s the love itself that I love. Which is to say: Even if the dream isn’t real, the dreamers are. There’s something about the struggling actors and screenwriters and immigrants who live here, the pioneer spirit that despite everything still brings people to the edge of America in search of success, that makes me feel at home.
“Schemes of My Father” is one of the most absorbing and well-crafted stories I have read in a long time. I feel richer for having read it.
For more on Puchner, who is a novelist and short story writer, check out his website.