Great Lit­er­a­ture, Not-So-Great Fathers” orig­i­nal­ly appeared in a JBC email on June 14. Sign up here to be the first to read more con­tent like this!

Father’s Day is here, so now is cer­tain­ly not the time to con­sid­er the role of the father in Great Lit­er­a­ture. No, no, no, we mustn’t, we can’t, we won’t, for today is the day we cel­e­brate the father, his con­tri­bu­tions to the fam­i­ly and the upbring­ing of the chil­dren and the life of the home, and if we were to go down the path of father­hood in lit­er­a­ture — in Great Lit­er­a­ture — we wouldn’t find fathers wor­thy of much fan­fare, nor praise, or even a good or word two. In fact, we’d find a strong argu­ment that the fathers who make a per­son say, This guy? Oh, my good­ness. Ter­ri­ble father. Just as bad as they come,” are exact­ly the thing that brings Great Lit­er­a­ture to life. So I should stop here and pick anoth­er sub­ject, shouldn’t I?

But hav­ing been asked to write some­thing for the occa­sion: I just so hap­pened to have recent­ly reread two nov­els, Saul Bellow’s Seize the Day and Fyo­dor Dostoyevsky’s Broth­ers Kara­ma­zov, in which some of the worst fathers in lit­er­a­ture take cen­ter stage, dri­ving their sons toward … well … in the case of Kara­ma­zov, pat­ri­cide. (No, no, no, come on, we can’t write about fathers in Great Lit­er­a­ture, not today, not for Father’s Day! It’s just not the time for it. And not a book about pat­ri­cide. Come on!) What do these sons want from Dad? Oh, a kind word and a pat on the back would do. Maybe a check with a few zeros. Dmit­ry Kara­ma­zov would also ask that his father not roman­ti­cal­ly pur­sue the woman he is in love with, which seems like a request any father could sub­mit to (although, these are very small towns in rur­al Rus­sia in the 1800s that we’re speak­ing of, so who knows, maybe there just weren’t as many options out there). 

Wilky, as well as the three Kara­ma­zov broth­ers, are pur­su­ing their fathers because they want some­thing from them, and their jour­neys … is the process of seek­ing and receiv­ing, or not receiv­ing, that thing: that is, the father’s love.

But above all else, the Kara­ma­zov Boys and Bellow’s Tom­my Wil­helm would like Dad to give them a boost of con­fi­dence, per­haps a cou­ple of boosts, the kind that would make a child believe that yes, in life, fail­ure is inevitable but get­ting back up is the thing, and that Dad’s hand will be held out to you to help in the process, if not finan­cial­ly, than at least spir­i­tu­al­ly. Bellow’s and Dostoyevsky’s fathers, how­ev­er, would rather that their chil­dren just go away, and both do every­thing in their pow­er to make that hap­pen. (Hav­ing two sons of my own, there are days when I can relate. But, come on, this is Father’s Day, and def­i­nite­ly not the day to talk about that. Hey, I love my sons! That’s the point.) 

Bellow’s Dr. Adler and Dostoyevsky’s Fyo­dor Kara­ma­zov would make a con­tem­po­rary day ther­a­pist say, I think it’s time to put some real space between you and Dad. This rela­tion­ship needs a pause.” But these sons keep mov­ing toward Dad, clos­er and clos­er and clos­er. They go far out of their way to be near him. The son in Seize the Day has moved into the same Upper West Side res­i­den­tial hotel — based on the Anso­nia on Broad­way between 73rd and 74th — where his father resides. No one has forced Wil­helm to pick up and put him­self smack in the mid­dle of the same build­ing as his father. Score one for Dad. What is the son doing there? Give Dad an inch! 

Of course, Wilky, as well as the three Kara­ma­zov broth­ers, are pur­su­ing their fathers because they want some­thing from them, and their jour­neys — and the foun­da­tions of these nov­els — is the process of seek­ing and receiv­ing, or not receiv­ing, that thing: that is, the father’s love. (It is a favorite sub­ject of my own, one I have cov­ered in two of my four nov­els, Ark and Between the Records.) But these fathers can’t give it because they aren’t capa­ble, are with­out the tools, the know-how, the stuff. And so what we have are two trag­ic father-nov­els, books you would nev­er want to read on Father’s Day! (No, don’t do it. Maybe for­go read­ing any book at all with a father in it today!) 

Or wait, maybe you would want to read these books on Father’s Day, for they will make you think of your own fathers, and might even bring you to say to your­self, Hey, you know what, with Dad, I’ve had it pret­ty good. Yes, I have. I real­ly have.” And being drawn toward appre­ci­a­tion and grat­i­tude — in this case, of our own fathers — is the very spir­it of this day. So, maybe Seize the Day and Broth­ers Kara­ma­zov are just the books to get into on June 16th, 2024. Enjoy, and hap­py Father’s Day! 

Julian Tepper’s fourth nov­el, Cool­er Heads, was pub­lished this past Jan­u­ary. His writ­ing has appeared in The Paris Review, Play­boy, The Brook­lyn Rail, Zyzzy­va, The Dai­ly Beast, Tablet Mag­a­zine, The New York Review of Archi­tec­ture, and else­where. His essay Lock­ing Down with the Fam­i­ly You’ve Just Evis­cer­at­ed in a Nov­el” was a Notable Essay of 2022 in The Best Amer­i­can Essays 2022. He was born and raised in New York City, and lives there still with his wife and two sons.