Dear Old Dad…

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Anthony De Sa’s novel imagines two lives—a father who leaves one country but fails to thrive in another, and the son who spends his life trying to figure him out.

Poor old dad. Modern literature offers no shortage of abusive, demanding fathers—from Kafka’s, who earned the blistering Letter to Father, a sixty-page indictment of the old man’s “sarcasm, spiteful laughter, and… self-pity,” to Bernard Cooper’s, a first-class hardass who left his son a two million dollar invoice for his paternal services. Cold and remote fathers, absent fathers, domestic tyrants and religious fanatics—these have been stock characters since the first failed hunter shook his fist at his ancestors. Villain or scapegoat, a bad father is like a flaw in the protagonist’s machinery, the sabot flung into the gears, waiting for a chance to jam the rotation and bring on the Stop Work siren.

Then there are fathers who simply disappoint, who drink or can’t keep a job or who offer a kindly mumble from behind a shut door. A dad like this is his own protagonist, a boy to whom something has happened. Portuguese-Canadian writer Anthony De Sa’s father-son novel, Barnacle Love, imagines the past of one such man, Manuel Antonio Rebelo, who breaks away from his homeland but somehow never fully arrives in his new life in Toronto. A puzzle to his son Antonio, who narrates the second half of this inventive and sensitively constructed novel, Manuel fails at almost everything. Still, he clings to a patriotic vision of Canada, a maple-leaf mirage that sustains him while the neighborhood boys pilfer his money and despise him for his drunkenness.

Manuel left his tiny fishing village in the Azores with no clearer aim than to shrug off his mother’s ambitions for him and “be part of a bigger world.” He had been born, it seemed, longing to leave. Breaking the news to his mother, who had already lost Manuel’s father to the sea, he could say only that he needed to go. He signed on with a fishing vessel, the Argus, and joined the 1954 campanha to ply the waters in the Portuguese tradition: “One man, one boat, one line dropped to the depths of the ocean.”

At sea, Manuel was lost—his little dory drifting away from the ship in heavy fog—and found, plucked nearly lifeless from the waves by a St. John frontiersman, whose one-legged daughter nursed the young man back to health. It was almost as if Manuel had been fated to drown, however, because nothing after his rescue came easily to him. Hard labor earned him enough to return to his native village for a bride, but his girlfriend broke her promise to leave again with him, and he picked another girl at random. His good job in Toronto slipped away through his own carelessness and petty theft. His mother’s cruel favoritism—for weren’t his eyes the same blue as his father’s, while his siblings’ were dark?—hung over him like a curse.

The curse for his son, Antonio, is forever wondering what went wrong. You can hear his weariness when he begins a reminiscence with, “This was going to be my father’s next attempt at ‘making it’…” Taking care of his soused father, Antonio shuttles between love and embarrassment. As soon as he can, he escapes on his bike, just as his kind, dutiful mother, Georgina, retreats to her attic studio to make sculpture from found objects—the perfect metaphor for refusing to be crushed by circumstance.

All around Antonio are examples of immigrants who have done well in their new land, who have taken root, while Manuel has foundered. “I thought about The Dream—why they came here,” Antonio reflects:

I always thought it had been for the same reason. Mother had her attic and her metal and us. But my father didn’t seem to have anything; he didn’t seem to want anything, as if The Dream wasn’t worth holding on to. He dwelled on the ‘nothing.’

Although roughly linear, De Sa’s narrative loops back periodically to elaborate on the past—in particular, both the malignancy that grew from Manuel’s mother’s love and a larger, analogous betrayal of trust on the part of the parish priest, the only surrogate father offered to the boy. These illuminate but can’t explain Manuel’s failures, and it’s smart of De Sa to deploy these pivotal scenes over the course of the novel, giving us a little more each time, like a song that expands with each refrain. Antonio can never figure out his father’s character because Manuel gave up so early. His arc is incomplete. But his son can trace it back to the Azores, to the little house on Sao Miguel and the village rectory, and piece together the lost world that made Manuel.

San Francisco writer Regina Marler is working on a biography of Virginia Woolf. More from this author →