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BOOK REVIEW

Surviving his dad’s cocaine addiction

By James Sullivan
January 24, 2011

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Dave Itzkoff was annoyed with his father. They were on ladders in Itzkoff’s apartment, installing a ceiling fan. The son held the fan in place with a pillow on his head while the father attempted to set the screws.

“Whoopst!’’ his father said repeatedly, each time he dropped another screw to the floor below. The father’s odd habit of adding a T to the end of the word made his son’s blood boil. When it was dad’s turn to hold up the fan, he tired quickly, and the whole sorry project was eventually abandoned to a hired handyman.

Itzkoff’s comic impatience with his father might be harder to understand were it not for the central truth of their relationship. For years, fur merchant Gerald Itzkoff was addicted to cocaine.

His problem was so pervasive, he once called his 15-year-old son after an especially grim binge, asking the boy to come get him in the city. In the family car.

As Itzkoff, now a culture reporter for The New York Times, chronicles his long struggle to come to terms with his father’s failures, he learns that Gerald was high even at his bris.

“I’m surprised they didn’t just shoot me,’’ the old man, finally clean, tells his son.

“Cocaine’s Son’’ is an uncomfortable, intermittently amusing memoir that grew out of a 2005 article Itzkoff wrote for New York magazine about his father’s drug-ravaged past. As a freelancer, Itzkoff once wrote another piece for that magazine about the editor who “enabled’’ James Frey’s disputed drug memoir, “A Million Little Pieces.’’ Itzkoff has evidently been careful to get his facts as straight as possible, given the obvious unreliability of his main source.

His own memory, like most of ours, may be a wee bit dysfunctional. Early on, he describes his father begging his mother, like a petulant schoolkid, to let him play hooky from work. Later, recalling an afternoon when both parents were uncharacteristically home from the office, he suggests that his father “had been pulled away from what he most wanted to be doing, which was yelling into the phone and selling fur.’’

The author, meanwhile, recounts himself practicing some tough love. After another falling-out, his father calls him at work. “David,’’ he pleads, “are you going to stop loving me?’’ In one of the book’s most difficult moments, the son hangs up the phone.

To his credit, Itzkoff berates himself for doing so. “I think it may have been the cruelest and most terrible thing I’ve ever done,’’ he writes.

Long after Gerald has kicked his habit, he and his son continue to stumble toward a higher ground of mutual understanding. During a trip to New Orleans, Dave Itzkoff asks Gerald to stop embarrassing him with secondhand stories of his own recreational drug use. Gerald can’t comprehend why he should stop telling the story just because his son is asking him to.

“But you’re not my father,’’ he says.

As exasperating as Gerald can be, even when he’s been sober for some time, “Cocaine’s Son’’ is ultimately a father-son love story. The book winds down with the author preparing for his wedding and contemplating the prospect of becoming a father himself.

Gerald, despite being in the back-slapping world of fur trading, dreads giving speeches like the one he’ll make at Dave’s rehearsal dinner. When the author finds the shirt cardboard on which his mother, taking dictation, had scribbled his father’s awkward but sincere toast, he vows to keep the artifact “as if it were the envelope on which Lincoln composed the Gettysburg Address.’’ For one family, it’s every bit as significant.

James Sullivan is the author of three books, including “Seven Dirty Words: The Life and Crimes of George Carlin.’’ He can be reached at sullivanjames@verizon.net.

COCAINE’S SON: A Memoir By Dave Itzkoff

Villard, 221 pp., $24