Today we offer you an excerpt from prize-winning author Lily King’s new novel, which spans three decades of a volatile relationship between a frighteningly charismatic, alcoholic father and the daughter who cannot help but love him. Beginning in 1974 and ending in 2008, Father of the Rain traces the lives and loves of a family wrenched apart by one man’s drinking. Enjoy…
It’s all done with such precision: the ice into the monogrammed glass, the snap of the paper across the cap of a new bottle of Smirnoff’s, the splash of vermouth, the tiny onions jiggled out so carefully. Then the pause, and then the sip, his eyes pulled shut by pleasure. I’ve never noticed what an act of love it all is…
My father is watching the news in the den. It’s strange to see him back in that room with his ashtray and his drink, as if he never left it for the sunroom and all those years with Catherine. A couch has replaced the recliners that replaced the couch my mother took to Water Street. The room looks almost back to normal, though the slipcovers are made of a nubby wool, something my mother wouldn’t have chosen. He bends his head down to watch the television, his eyes straining up just beneath their hoods. A woman is discussing affirmative action on some courthouse steps. She speaks articulately, quickly, trying to get the most words into her few seconds of time on national TV.
“Why are black people always talking about black people?” my father says in his disgusting version of an African American accent, though the woman speaking has the regionless accent of a newscaster. “Have you noticed that?”
“Because in this country they are defined by their skin color, and they’ve had to fight for every basic right that we get automatically by being born white.”
“Fighting for their rights? This woman is fighting for inequality. This woman wants a black C student to be chosen over a straight A-student. She’s fighting for their right to cheat.”
My retort constructs itself swiftly. I’ve got a lot of ammo now on this question, yet none of my knowledge will help me win a fight with my father. He will cling to his position even when all reason fails him; he will cling to it as if it’s his life and not his opinion that is in peril. He will get vicious and personal, and every negative thing he ever felt about me will pour out of his mouth. Ridding my father of his racist and anti-Semitic rhetoric would take a long time. It would be a whole reeducation. His prejudices are a stew of self-hatred, ignorance, and fear. If those feelings could be rooted out and examined somehow, maybe he wouldn’t have to drink so much to squelch the pain of them.
“You don’t have much of an answer to that, do you?”
Would Jonathan be horrified at my cowardice? Would he understand that to argue would be futile, would wound me deeply and do nothing to change him.
“I’m going to get dinner started.” I can hear my mother in my tone with him. “Do you want me to call you when I’m ready to make the hollandaise?”
“The what?” Then he remembers. “Okay. Sure.”
But when it’s time, he slouches against the counter with his hands in his pockets, staring but unseeing as I whisk the egg yolks in a saucepan and add cubes of butter, one at a time.
“It’s so easy, Dad. The only trick is to get the flame as low as possible and keep stirring. It’ll curdle if it gets too hot. Here, you take the whisk.” He takes it and, in a fairly good imitation of me, flicks the wire bulb through the thickening sauce. Hope swells in my chest. I have this idea that if he can make his own hollandaise he’ll be okay. And if he can learn to make both hollandaise and wash his clothes, he won’t need a wife at all.
At the table, A-1 sauce slathered over his rib eye, hollandaise over his asparagus, he is grateful. And very drunk. “You’re a goddamn good cook, you know that?
Lily King is the author of three novels. The Pleasing Hour (1999) won the Barnes and Noble Discover Award and was a New York Times Notable Book and an alternate for the PEN/Hemingway Award. Her second, The English Teacher, was a Publishers Weekly Top Ten Book of the Year, a Chicago Tribune Best Book of the Year, and the winner of the Maine Fiction Award. Father of the Rain, her third novel, was published in July, 2010. Lily is the recipient of a MacDowell Fellowship and a Whiting Award. Her short fiction has appeared in literary magazines including Ploughshares and Glimmer Train, as well as in several anthologies. Her website is lilykingbooks.com. Read more about King in her recent Drinking Diaries interview.