THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Daddy dearest

A daughter’s painful but amusing saga of growing up with an alcoholic and bigoted but still beguiling father

Lily King’s third novel, “Father of the Rain,’’ takes place in the fictional North Shore town of Ashing. Lily King’s third novel, “Father of the Rain,’’ takes place in the fictional North Shore town of Ashing. (Laura Lewis)
By Leah Hager Cohen
Globe Correspondent / July 25, 2010

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Fill a highball glass with ice. Add two fingers of Archie Bunker, a splash of Homer Simpson, and serve with a twist of Jack Nicholson. That could be the cocktail recipe for Gardiner Amory, the volatile, imperious, babyish, alcoholic, and impossibly beguiling character at the heart of Lily King’s third novel, “Father of the Rain.” The narrator and nominal protagonist is his daughter, Daley. But it says as much about King’s judicious portrait of the intricately flawed patriarch as it does about the gravitational pull exerted by certain addicts that Gardiner is the character most likely to linger in readers’ thoughts.

Growing up in the 1970s in the fictional North Shore town of Ashing, a world of country clubs, private schools, and “generous housewives in Lilly Pulitzer dresses,” Daley Amory is divided in her loyalties to her parents and their very different values. Her mother, a budding social activist, works with Project Genesis, an outreach program designed to “heal the wounds” of underserved children (a goal that translates in practical terms as having them over to frolic in the Amorys’ pool and eat hamburgers in their backyard a few evenings every summer). She’s critical of Nixon, fond of literature, and eventually winds up working for a child-advocacy lawyer.

Her father, on the other hand, is the sort of person who polishes off his second poolside martini and smugly remarks, “I wonder what the poor people are doing today.” The only literature he’s fond of is Penthouse. He affects a Fat Albert accent whenever talking about black people, refers to the Project Genesis kids as “monkeys,” and casually assumes they urinate in the pool.

Although Daley attempts to distance herself from his most repugnant views (“They’re not peeing in it,” she meekly submits), she cannot help adoring her father. In fact she loves both parents with a kind of hopeless futility. We meet her at age 11, on the eve of the marriage’s dissolution, and from the earliest pages she conveys weary resignation. “I don’t say no to my father’s ideas, just as I don’t say no to my mother’s.” It’s as though Daley understands her role in life to be that of passive bystander: witness to a long, inexorable train wreck. Whether she will ever be able to imagine a new role for herself becomes the novel’s central question, but it plays out (over the course of some 30 years) less as her story alone than as an intricate drama between her adult self and her father, and we never care quite as much about Daley — will she or won’t she wrench herself free from codependency? — as we do about the riveting Gardiner.

This may be due in part to Daley’s not being a terribly original thinker. Like most child narrators, she is a keen observer — a technique that allows readers to grasp fully what she herself only partially comprehends (as when she spies “a tube of something called KY Jelly” after her father’s girlfriend moves in, or notices her father’s words “skating slightly sideways” after he’s had a few drinks). But her formulations of events and feelings tend toward the banal. On what she likes about her best friend: “I’ll go over to her house to make chocolate chip cookies and we’ll end up wearing wigs and pretending we have our own cooking show. And then we pee our pants because we’re laughing so hard.” Some of her descriptions rely on clichés (“She had that large person’s jolliness and warmth” ). And certain plot developments feel more rote than revelatory (as when Daley, daughter of an avowed racist, grows up to fall in love with an African-American man).

Yet while Daley’s voice is somewhat prosaic, it’s also good company: honest, unforced, not infrequently entertaining. Her story trips along comfortably, engagingly. If her description of happiness is overburdened by an excess of physiological exactitude (“A feeling is pooling inside me, flooding my chest and up into my throat and down the backs of my calves” ), the moment when it occurs feels legitimately, movingly, happy. It comes on a summer evening. Daley has just picked her father up from his AA meeting, and in the space of a few minutes he expresses compassion for one of his co-members, curses at being reminded to buckle his seatbelt, and with four gruff words — “Just like your mother” — manages simultaneously to disparage and compliment his daughter.

In moments like this — and there are scores of them — the novel sings. King’s great accomplishment lies in making us care about Gardiner without ever letting up on her depiction of his gross infelicities. He is a marvelously complex character: at once consistent and rife with paradox. And King is too sophisticated to offer a straightforward redemptive arc. Instead, we see Gardiner grow, and we see him revert. We see Daley root for him, and we see her question whether doing so means personal stagnation. We see mistakes repeated and hopes renewed. Ultimately, King suggests, redemption lies less in healing than in living — simply being present to what is.

Leah Hager Cohen teaches at the Collegeof the Holy Cross. Her new novel, “TheGrief of Others,’’ will be publishednext year. She can be reached at info@leahhagercohen.com.

FATHER OF THE RAIN
By Lily King
Atlantic Monthly, 354 pp., $24