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From the archives

The Trust Spiral

Restoring faith in the media

Dear Prudence

A life of exuberance and eccentricity

Who’s Afraid of Alice Munro?

A long-awaited biography gives the facts, but not the mystery, behind this writer’s genius

A Portrait of Grief

Charles Foran turns to memoir

John Baglow

Just Once, No More: On Fathers, Sons, and Who We Are Until We Are No Longer

Charles Foran

Alfred A. Knopf Canada

200 pages, hardcover, ebook, and audiobook

Charles Foran, who has published a dozen titles, writes in his latest, “I can’t seem to finish this book.” One can sympathize. What promises at first to be a classic father-son narrative — perhaps along the lines of John Mortimer’s A Voyage round My Father or Robert Anderson’s I Never Sang for My Father — proves to be nothing of the kind. If there is narrative here, it is hard to detect in a jumble of reminiscences, anecdotes, fantasies, and lengthy reflections on the ­meaning of life.

Foran has written two biographies: the award-winning Mordecai: The Life and Times and the short, punchy Maurice Richard, about the legendary hockey player. He clearly possesses the unique skills that biography requires, including sound research instincts; the ability to sort the facts from the fictions, both small and large, that survivors tell and that documents may ­contain; and the capability to construct a coherent story.

Poised in a liminal region between biography and autobiography, however, an account of one’s relationship with a parent presents a more daunting task. The formlessness of the subject matter might easily overwhelm. What pattern or order should one impose on such material? And what if there’s just not enough material? In the case of Foran’s father, psychically wounded into angry silence by the cold indifference of his own parents, there is precious little.

“The need to write about my father came as a surprise,” Foran explains early in the book. He continues,

But once he began his final and, it turned out, slow decline, I started wanting to track it, and him, more closely — not as a hunter but as an investigator, possibly an interrogator as well. At the outset I could boast clear and honorable motives. To help lift an inchoate burden from his shoulders. To absolve him of the shame that composed much of that lifelong weight. To reassure him that he was loved. To get him to explain why he could never be close to anyone except Muriel.

Yet subtle doubt begins to creep in: “How I wished all this for my father. And for me. But mostly — I was certain — for him.”

Drawn to the evidence of lives lived.

La Khai-Way; Unsplash

The book opens with an almost primordial scene of Charles’s father at age twenty-two encountering a bear in the woods and successfully defending himself. This was just one of young David’s hair-raising adventures in the bush near Lake Huron, before he married Muriel Fallu in 1955. Although he settled down to the life of a “shopping-center executive” and “suburban patriarch” in Toronto, he remained angry and solitary, showing “more jagged edge than smooth surface.”

The heroic, larger-than-life father figure is, of course, a stock character in life and literature, reflecting the almost religious awe with which so many boys regard their dads in a society that remains stubbornly patriarchal. Frequently, such awe extends into a lifelong failure to know one’s father (and vice versa), particularly on the emotional level. Many men find themselves unable to do much about it. In this respect, there’s not a lot that is new in Charles Foran’s account. Experiencing the ­sadness and wistfulness that can accompany middle age, and that permeate his text, he sets out to establish an emotional connection.

The problem is that it proves to be an impossible task. Foran’s father, even on his deathbed, remains as bitterly laconic as he has been all his life. Charles has to forage for scraps and fragments of knowledge. He assembles a series of old photographs from the house of his grandfather’s late second wife; a newspaper article he has recently published; and a list of questions to spark authentic conversations that never take place. His father isn’t interested in any of it.

To know his father better, Foran turns to family history: his deceased grandfather, alcoholic grandmother, grandfather’s second wife, and his father’s “co‑damaged sibling” (but, oddly, his own mother, still living, remains almost invisible in this account). Driving to visit his father in hospital, he regularly passes four ruined barns, which he associates with those four relatives. They become visual aids to prompt ­dialogue, which comes only in fits and starts.

We do learn of David Foran’s physical attributes: “freckles covered his skin — everywhere, and lit by some eternal flame” and his “intense, oceanic blue” eyes. And we read about his worsening appearance, how “the blue too had washed out, paint poured into a rushing stream, and the irises had clouded over.” Beyond that, we can’t glean much about the man, other than some key biographical details and brief glimpses of his difficult personality. Father and son repurposed “rote words and familiar concepts to serve as awkward metaphors,” but there was no “shared vocabulary” between the two. “We had never been able to speak directly about our feelings.”

Countless men would find themselves nodding in sympathy with this all-too-common experience. But Foran’s project, as originally set out, effectively comes to naught. It’s not surprising, then, that he eventually becomes his own subject, venturing well beyond the archeology of the biographer, confessing near the end, in a note to his dad (which, like Franz Kafka’s excruciating “Dearest Father,” goes ­undelivered): “Never has this book been only, or even principally, about you.”

“The son found unceasing change and unexpected possibility in human affairs,” Foran writes. “The father, only broken things that couldn’t be fixed and people who couldn’t be forced to love you.” Perhaps inevitably, the book becomes a series of reflections on ­mortality, mutability, and, above all, connection. In this, the author is no doubt prompted by his own ­serious heart condition, its discovery ­progressively unfolding in the text.

Foran takes his title from Rilke’s Duino Elegies: “Once for each thing. Just once, no more. And we too, / Just once.” It is wide enough in its application to capture the book’s multi-faceted content. But having lost his original focus, he heads off in all directions, becomes increasingly self-referential, and not infrequently descends into bathos. Remembering an artist friend who died of leukemia — as well as the circle of good friends who had formed around him and his wife but who eventually dissipated — Foran writes, “People got sad.” He imagines he has organized a dinner party with the group ­assembled as before, discussing a prearranged set of existential questions and ending the evening with the artist’s wife paraphrasing Leonard Cohen’s Boogie Street: “Friends . . . try not to be frightened. We are so briefly here. In love, we come in. In love, let us go out as well.”

Foran watches pigeons outside his office ­window: “hundreds of them lining up along the ledge of an apartment building in your ­direct sight.” Even as the individual birds change, the flight patterns remain the same, much as songs, stories, and dances persist while ­singers, storytellers, and dancers do not. We learn of his liking for the remains of old buildings, burial mounds, and cemeteries; his obsessive reading of obituaries; an oddly inward-looking commencement address. He goes on to describe spinning compulsively into a free association of topics and interests, with the aid of Google: the history of Carthage, Bruce Springsteen, Indonesian gamelan music, puppet theatre, the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland, comfort animals, and the iconic sewers of Paris, inter alia. As Foran himself puts it, “And so on. Literally: on and on.”

Throughout the book, one has the sense that Foran is reaching for profound insights, but that, in many cases, they are just out of his grasp. Many of us surf the internet, but we don’t usually find it an activity worth recording. Perhaps this obsessive urge to know reflects “a desire to be more and more of the world, in the world, however passingly and amateurishly, and so perhaps see the connections, the ­connectedness, that must be the quiet counter to the industrial noise of everyday time.” Perhaps it is “about curiosity and astonishment” or even about “starting to let go.” Such reflections can seem rather trite, however, even when the author calls authorities like Saint Augustine and Bob Dylan to his aid.

At times, Foran is a writer observing himself write, like Jean-Paul Sartre’s server in a café watching himself play waiter. But unfortunately what he writes simply doesn’t cohere. It’s a scatter of thoughts, reminiscences, fantasies, and ponderous attempts at wisdom and too much writerly self-consciousness, including multiple appeals to pay attention —“Feel that?”— and his use of the second person when talking about himself. Just Once, No More becomes the “­churnings” of a “heavy mind,” a trail of “careening thoughts.” Foran explains that “the only way to stop unraveling the text is to quit it.” So he does, imagining how he would like to die. He makes an end but not a conclusion.

But with all of that said, Just Once, No More might also be seen as an entirely accurate reflection of what all of us are left with when a ­difficult relationship ends without resolution. Our minds race, trying to make sense of it all. There is no order to our thoughts and feelings. Seen thus, this book is not so much a story as a struggle to create one — the field notes of a man in the throes of grief, the fragments he has shored against the ruins of a relationship he never truly had.

John Baglow reads and writes in Ottawa.

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