Accomplished writer McKenzie Cassidy stuns with his beautiful debut novel, Here Lies a Father. Told as a classic coming-of-age story, Cassidy’s narrator, fifteen-year-old Ian Daly, is a nuanced combination of the naivete of Huckleberry Finn and the shrewdness of Holden Caufield. This combination is highly effective, as Ian’s voice is both fresh and compelling. It is easy to be drawn into Ian’s world as he sets out on a solitary journey, one that begins at a funeral and ends at a wedding. Cassidy fills the space between these two touchstones with richly drawn characters, haunting landscapes, and rough emotional terrain. His protagonist is undaunted and determined to soldier on in search of something he cannot quite articulate, at least not at the start of his journey. Here Lies a Father is a thoughtful and tender exploration of a boy’s passage from adolescence to adulthood, a passage that is both excruciating and enlightening for Ian Daly.
Shortly after the passing of their father, Ian and his older sister Catherine travel to New Brimfield: a bleak, forgotten town in upstate New York. Their drive is arduous. Under the gloom of “thick raindrops that crawl across the windshield like spiders,” Ian and his sister negotiate “the desolate network of back roads.” Cassidy’s use of weather is aptly foreboding. Shortly after the siblings bury their father’s cremains in a gothic cemetery, a disturbing secret is revealed. Thomas Daly had two previous marriages and several other children whom he’d abandoned.
When this comes to light, their father’s sister callously quips, “Are you telling me your parents never mentioned any of this?” Catherine is disgusted and leaves immediately. Ian, however, is buoyed by his youthful optimism and believes that something good can come from visiting with “family members.” He is quick to dismiss his sister’s cynicism, even when she warns him that they don’t want to hear what he has to say. Catherine’s remarks are a subtle and clever use of dramatic irony. Despite all that has transpired during this visit, Ian’s naivete prevents him from seeing the obvious: the Dalys of New Brimfield are not family.
Over the course of the weekend in his father’s hometown, Ian frantically ricochets from aunt to uncle to half-siblings and even ex-wives, drilling into the details of his father’s “other life.” He is desperate to forge a connection with what he hopes will be an extended family. Ian’s “new” relatives meet his incessant questions with cruel disdain. “I can’t give you what you want,” Thomas Daly’s second wife flatly tells him before she walks away. Ironically, the deeper Ian digs into his father’s past, the farther he drifts from any kind of truth — about his father, his family, or himself. Ian arrives in upstate New York believing that he is part of a solid, though slightly flawed, family unit, the son of a “strong, entertaining man,” but he leaves with the gut-wrenching realization that this belief is pure fiction based on an entirely false narrative, one which has been perpetuated by his own mother.
Cassidy captures with poetic precision the pain a child feels when suddenly faced with the truth of his family’s dysfunction. “Home?” Ian reflects. “What was home? We always had places to live, or somewhere to hang our hats, as Mom used to say, but actually comprehending home in my head was like grasping at vapors.” There is a deep sense that Ian is disappointed in himself, that somehow, he should have known better, like his sister Catherine. He believes he should have strung together the odd clues and connected the dots when his father drifted from job to job, drank too much, or offered illogical advice. Ian thinks back on a peculiar moment when his father equates life to piloting a boat. “The sea was tumultuous,” his father explains, “but so was life and as long as he stayed parallel to the coast he’d be close enough to get rescued if anything serious happened.” The problem Ian remembers is that “Dad didn’t even know how to swim” and the boat he had planned to buy “was in horrible shape.” Like so many children of dysfunction, Ian feels the burden of shame that is associated with such families, and he possesses a common fear: “the sad truth we all had to face was that certain undesirable parts of a family’s genetic makeup couldn’t be diluted.”
After Ian returns home, he finds himself further estranged from his mother, who is more concerned with her newest romantic interest than discussing the old news of Thomas Daly’s failings. Ian’s initial anger at his mother is short-lived. As difficult as his trip to New York was, Cassidy artfully frames it in the most classic sense. Ian’s journey was that of a hero’s; he traveled to a foreign land, was tested, acquired new knowledge, and returned home a better person. A mature and more worldly Ian reflects on his experience in New York and what will lie ahead for him: “No matter how perfect you thought it was, or how perfect you tried to force it to be, you eventually lost something. Not that loss was always a bad thing because it freed you up to make new memories, as long as you kept looking forward.” Liberated from the myth that was his family, and out from under the long shadow of a wayward father, he sets out to do just that: to move forward and find “something more to life, something good and honorable.”
Here Lies a Father
By McKenzie Cassidy
Kaylie Jones Books
Published January 5, 2021