Here’s a great short story about an adult son who visits his dying father in the hospital. Lenny, now middle-aged, forces himself to tell his father not to worry, that he loves him and that his father did all right by him. These words are met with the type of shut-down that plagued his small family during his childhood: “Don’t talk about things you know nothing about.”
Lenny, an only child, spends this time in the hospital looking back at his childhood and at his now-divorced parents. He remembers the year he was sixteen, when his mother declared, “This next year, starting tonight, is going to be the year of getting to know us better.” Lenny’s father, always distant and selfish about his time, reacts gruffly. His mother suggests small things, the movies, a party for Lenny and his friends, and a family vacation. “And Max. You can take Lenny with you to play golf. For example.” His father’s reaction is typical. “Neither of us would like it.”
During that year, Lenny makes an upsetting discovery about his father. But in a scene that demands confrontation, nothing happens, pointing to the extremes of emotional repression, both father and son.
In the end, Lenny reaches for something to resolve his disconnected feelings. He remembers a trip to the beach with his parents the year he was sixteen, the designated year of getting to know one another. His father tells him, “You don’t have to get to know me because one day you’re going to grow up and then you’re going to be me.” A golf lesson follows, on a cliff over the ocean. His father did his best to meet the reach, but it wasn’t enough. “I was sixteen years old and waiting for the next thing he would tell me,” Lenny recalls.
I found this terrific story in The Scribner Anthology of Contemporary Short Fiction – Fifty North American Stories Since 1970. I like thinking about how Canin’s characters can’t break free of this family dynamic of detachment and lack of commitment, despite the mother’s efforts. In the end, I think the message is that people do the best they can, even when that isn’t enough. Making peace with this reality is Lenny’s ultimate challenge.
Ethan Canin is an American writer and physician. He attended Stanford University, the University of Iowa Writer’s Workshop and then Harvard University, where he earned a medical degree. In 1998, Canin gave up his medical profession to concentrate on writing, his true passion. He is now F. Wendell Miller Professor of English at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and is the author of six books, including the 2008 New York Times best seller, America, America.
In 2008, “The Year of Getting to Know Us” was adapted into a movie of the same name, starring Tom Arnold, Sharon Stone, Jimmy Fallon and Lucy Liu.
Be sure to visit Ethan Canin’s website for more information about his books and other interests:
I also found a great Stanford University alumni magazine article describing his career change.
Thanks also to a Wikipedia article about Ethan Canin!
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