My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I picked up this book on the effusive recommendation of Alan Jacobs. At first I thought I might tire of it: though I felt sympathy for a fatherless boy, I confess to my shame that that sympathy did not extend to listening to him moon to his dad about the absence of his dad.
But something happened in the emotional tenor of the book: by making his efforts to recover a father an effort to also recover a sense of nation and people (both of which I take for granted), Dougherty succeeded in sounding not whiny but hopeful. And when he turned his penetrating gaze and his grand prose back on America, he saw something I needed to see again:
Mass media was my primary teacher growing up. And it taught me and my friends how to conform with one another. It slipped under the table to me a lesson that sincerity is a kind of weakness. That it will be used against me. And that any sentiment at all, anything that could expose you to the danger of ridicule or the genuine possession of an emotion, should be double- and triple-Saran-wrapped in irony. I suppose we do this for safety somehow, as if unwrapped passion itself is so flammable, it would consume our little worlds at the instant we exposed it to open air. (180)
I immediately saw myself. A few of my own convictions are things that embarrass me in polite Christian company, and the mocking I took to be healthy self-deprecation I now see as ironic self-distancing and self-protection. I will change, by God’s grace.
Dougherty shows that the Irish nationalists of yesteryear, who gave their lives in a revolt they had to know would fail, have been mocked by today’s ironic self-distancers. But they had something real we lack, something that ought to quicken the heart. In a day when even snuggling with your children is justified by the terms of technocratic capitalism—”Reading to Kids Increases their Net Worth by $127,350 by age 40″—we need to recover the idea that life gives us better values than money. That sounds almost like pablum as I summarize it, but it wasn’t in Dougherty’s hands: he successfully conveyed a sense of longing for the Irish nation without in any way trying to exclude others. In the day of the alt-right, it’s considered dangerous to praise and defend the values of one’s nation. Nations are ersatz realities, political creations, power grabs—we Saran-wrap ourselves from feeling any pride in star-spangled banners or Irish tri-colours. But it shouldn’t be. Distinctive cultures have distinctive gifts of God (and distinctive sins), and those gifts are worth preserving. And the neat thing about American nationhood is that it was designed to incorporate huddled masses yearning to breathe free. This vision doesn’t have to focus on exclusion.
Dougherty focused a good deal on the revisionist approaches to the Irish nationalist story. And I found his comments on that revisionism helpful:
Let’s grant for a moment that we are all revisionists now. That we all retell stories in light of our motives. The next question would be: What are your motives?… If we want noble things in life, we will pull those noble things out of our history and experience. If we are cynics, we will see plenty of justification for our cynicism. (48)
I’m a conservative Protestant Christian, and I’m not going to distance myself from critiquing one theme in the book that I didn’t quite understand. Dougherty seems to be critical of an American culture which, in his youth, placed a stigma on the single-parent status of his mother. Widows get support that single moms don’t get, he said. They made their bed with a man they weren’t married to; now they must lie in it even after he is gone. My heart does go out to Dougherty’s deceased mother, who died lonely and afflicted. It’s true that I place more blame on his father, who never should have fathered a child with a woman to whom he was not married (his later efforts to maintain connection with his son are nonetheless noted and appreciated—he was far better than many men). But the woman made a choice, too, and it affected her and her son for decades afterwards. Illicit sex does this. Our culture for the last fifty years has tried to wink at premarital sex and nudge it on everyone, but this is what happens when people have sex without being married: pain. It isn’t strait-laced primness that causes me to oppose premarital sex, but love for God (who gave us the gift of sex) and for people.
This book is blurbed by J.D. Vance, of whose work it made me think. Oh how I wish that more of the fatherless boys I knew in long ministry on the wrong side of the tracks would turn out to be as thoughtful and successful as Vance and Dougherty. Most fatherlessness never gets an eloquent plea for attention. Those of us who take fathers for granted should read these books to increase our gratitude—and our determination to be faithful in love to our own children.