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A Review of Brian Russell’s Meeting Dad

March 30, 2010 by · 1 comment

Barry George


Brian Russell’s Meeting Dad is a memoir of his efforts to reconcile with his natural father. The story unfolds with a sense of urgency and anticipation. Russell is a fourteen-year-old living in Buffalo; Bob Jaycox is a salesman now living in San Juan, Puerto Rico, with his second wife and family. In the course of a few days – and a few well-paced pages – young Brian decides to contact his father, secures a phone number from his mother, makes the call, and, accompanied by his younger brother, ponders his future on a plane bound for San Juan.

What will he find in Puerto Rico? Who exactly is this man who left eleven years before?

In addition to the economy of action, what is especially appealing is Russell’s ear for dialogue and eye for detail. He uses dialogue skillfully to express, for example, his appreciation for Bob Jaycox’s warmth and amiability. “Jay’s” response to the initial collect call he receives from Russell – will he take the charges? – “Well I surely will!” – is but the first in a series of the father’s “trademark” expressions that Russell faithfully records.

The author’s observant eye is on display as he recounts first meeting Jay’s second wife, Janey, that first night in San Juan. “When she smoked a cigarette,” Russell writes, “which was nearly all the time as best I could tell, she held it between the third and fourth fingers of her left hand and inhaled almost violently before exhaling languidly, forcing the smoke in a downward diagonal contrail toward the floor.” It is exactly the kind of detail that might engage a fourteen-year-old boy’s attention amidst the whirlwind of sensations in an exotic new place.

What is most distinctive about Russell’s memoir, however, is the tone of ambivalence he strikes. His feelings for Bob Jaycox are mixed: hurt and anger coexist with a desire to forgive and to receive love. The theme is established early as Russell notes how he is both thrilled and discomfited on first hearing Jay’s disarmingly affectionate “slow and slightly Southern drawl.” It is reinforced when he realizes that the trip to Puerto Rico has succeeded almost beyond measure: Bob Jaycox loves him and wants him to visit again soon. And yet all the while he is thinking, “[S]o that’s it. You can simply tell me you love me and you can’t wait to see me the next time and that’s supposed to make up for eleven years of no contact?”

Most tellingly, the ambivalence shows as Russell describes his inability at various junctures, despite Jay’s calling him “Son,” to reciprocate with the word, “Dad.”

What happens after the initial visit to Puerto Rico? Is Russell ultimately able to reconcile his conflicting feelings? To answer these questions, the story fast-forwards to a scene many years later. Russell, a director in the theater, has recently married; Jaycox has recently died. On the closing night of a play he has directed, Russell experiences an epiphany….

But rather than give away the ending, let me simply quote the author’s own description of his story as one where “nothing quite goes according to script.” Exactly so, which makes Meeting Dad as moving as it is true to life.

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