An acclaimed author reflects on his upbringing in a post–World War II blue-collar family and comes to terms with the racism, sexism, and other toxic values he inherited.
Finalist for the 2014 New England Book Award in Non-Fiction
Richard Hoffman sometimes felt as though he had two fathers: the real one who raised him and an imaginary version, one he talked to on the phone, and one he talked to in his head. Although Hoffman was always close to the man, his father remained a mystery, shrouded in a perplexing mix of tenderness and rage. When his father receives a terminal cancer diagnosis, Hoffman confronts the depths and limitations of their lifelong struggle to know each other, weighing their differences and coming to understand that their yearning and puzzlement was mutual.
With familial relationships at its center, Love & Fury draws connections between past and present, from the author’s grandfather, a “breaker boy” sent down into the anthracite mines of Pennsylvania at the age of ten, to his young grandson, whose father is among the estimated one million young black men incarcerated today. In a critique of culture and of self, Hoffman grapples with the way we have absorbed and incorporated the compelling imagery of post WWII America and its values, especially regarding class, war, women, race, masculinity, violence, divinity, and wealth.
A masterful memoirist, Hoffman writes not only to tell a gripping story but also to understand, through his family, the social and ethical contours of American life. At the book’s core are the author’s questions about boyhood, fatherhood, and grandfatherhood, and about the changing meaning of what it means to be a good man in America, now and into the future.
From the Hardcover edition.
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About the Author
From the Hardcover edition.
Read an Excerpt
We’re sitting in the kitchen, at the scarred Formica table, my father and my brother Joe and I, having just finished the kind of meal we have had innumerable times in the twenty-three years since my mother died: take-out hot dogs from “Yocco, the Hot Dog King” with a side of deep-fried pierogies, or maybe it was microwaved Lloyd’s Roast Beef Barbecue from a plastic container in the fridge, or strip steaks on the George Foreman Grill, with a side of microwaved instant mashed potatoes. I can’t recall for certain what we ate that night, maybe because my father has asked us to meet with him after supper to go over his will, and the two steel boxes have been there on the table next to the tall plastic bottle of orange soda throughout the meal, keeping their secrets to themselves. I know what’s in at least one of them, though: birth certificates, death certificates, account numbers, records, directions, the deeds to graves. It’s two weeks since he’s been diagnosed with MDS, myelodysplastic syndrome, a condition that, at his age, eighty-one, almost always becomes leukemia. He has everything in order, he says. It’s all right here in the boxes.
“Now the will’s pretty simple,” he tells us, “everything’s split down the middle so there’s nothing for the two of you to fight about.” He has told each of us the same thing in the past two weeks, and Joe and I have talked about it on thephone. “You want the toaster oven or the Foreman grill?” my brother joked. It’s true that there wasn’t much to split up. My father had a story he liked to tell about sitting down with my mother at the kitchen table once each month to pay bills and putting all the bills in my mother’s stockpot and drawing them out one by one, writing checks till the money was gone. “And that was that,” he’d say. “If we ran out of money before we got to you, well then you went back in the pot next month.”
Once when I was young and knew, according to my father, neither the difference between shit and shine-ola, nor my ass from my elbow, on a holiday visit home from college, I chimed in with a lame coda to my father’s anecdote, trying to augment the good humor of it, give it a little extra spin. As my father drew the story to its canonical close, “well then you went back in the pot next month,” I wisecracked that I finally understood why we never had a pot to piss in, another expression of my father’s. “You guys were using it as the Accounts Payable Department!”
My father looked at me blankly as if he didn’t get it. Then, before I could compound my mistake by trying to explain it, he rose from his chair.
“You little punk,” he muttered as he left the room. I had tripped a switch and plunged my father from the safety of his lyric, humorous, emblematic scene into deep shame and remembered desperation, the very emotions that his ritual telling, with its shrug and goofball smile, its cavalier “fuck ’em” attitude, was meant to exorcise. I was of course the one who didn’t get it, sitting there on my elbow with a shine-ola-eating grin on my face. I was not the one who had stood against a wall at six in the morning for the shape-up, hoping to get picked to work like a donkey for the next twelve hours. I was not the one who’d had to go down to the PP&L office with money made from cleaning out somebody’s suburban garage just to get the lights turned back on. I was not the one who felt humiliated the year our Christmas presents came from the Salvation Army, complete with tags that said, Boy, 6–8 years old. My father had taken all those years and all that shame and locked them in a little box of a story, and just when he was clicking it shut again, as he had so many times before, I propped the lid open a moment longer with my fatuous cleverness, and a monstrous cloud, a genie of shame, escaped.
Everyone in my family considered themselves middleclass, all my aunts and uncles, each and every household, whether anyone had a job or not, regardless of what kind of work they did when there was work, regardless of whether or not they had “a pot to piss in.”
We never used the word “class.” My father called us working people. He always said we were working people, and he wanted me to be proud of it. I was a good student. School came easily to me, and I couldn’t wait to be the first in my family to go to college. And my father, conflicted in ways that he showed by barking, shouting, kicking things, and occasionally knocking me down, let me know that he was scared for me, jealous, proud of me, and betrayed.
I remember the day I announced to my father that, football scholarship or not, I was going to college. “Whattya think, your last name’s Rockefeller?” I had asked him for his signature on the loan papers I’d left on the kitchen table with the glossy view book from Fordham University. When I first brought home the booklet, with its views of a Gothic clock tower, stained-glass windows, a wrought-iron gate, my mother held it at arm’s length and tucked her chin as if it smelled suspicious, but in fact she didn’t have her glasses handy and held it that way because she was what she called “far-sighted.”
“Classy-looking joint,” she pronounced.
“We don’t have that kind of money,” my father said. “Look around here, knucklehead, you see a Cadillac out front? A swimming pool in the back?” I’m sure I said something insolent then because he was after me as I headed for the door. He grabbed the neck of my varsity jacket and we pushed and pulled and wrestled until I escaped, leaving him holding the jacket, inside out. As I turned in the doorway to shout something else and get a good hold to slam the door, I saw him turn it back right side out and, quietly, tenderly, brush it off and hang it in the hall closet. Later, when I came back, the papers were upstairs on my bed, signed.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Love & Fury is Richard's Hoffman's memoir of five generations of his family. He tells the complex and interesting story of his family. The story weaves back and forth between the generations as the stories intertwine. It's as though we're sitting on the porch and he's telling us their story. It's a thoroughly engaging story that I didn't want to end.