I’m a fan of a good memoir. David Sedaris is one of my favorite authors, mostly because he can write about his family in a way that is both sardonic and tender. Dave Itzkoff’s aim is not for a memoir written in the style of David Sedaris, but he is aiming squarely for a book that examines family relationships — specifically, the one between father and son. Unfortunately, the result of that aim, Cocaine’s Son, is a book that bogs the reader down into a depressing relationship for which there never is a satisfying conclusion.
I will say that Itzkoff has a very readable style. Unlike some other memoirs I’ve read, with authors who have more of an interesting story and less of an ability to put the story on the page, Itzkoff has a great voice. He’s descriptive — my mind’s eye was able to be more active with this book than it is with most nonfiction. He also uses different techniques for some chapters, like making one non-linear and another in the form of a play script. In these ways, Cocaine’s Son was a joy to read.
What wasn’t so wonderful was the content. At first, it’s interesting to hear about Itzkoff’s father, and his issues with him, and, yes, I realize that the book is supposed to be an exploration of their relationship. It’s unfortunate that Itzkoff’s portrayal of his father makes it impossible to either identify or sympathize with either man. Gerald Itzkoff is a man who treats others as if they don’t count. His behavior makes him unpalatable to me in the highest degree — he’s not a “character”, he’s not “eccentric”. He’s a kook who has no concept of how his actions impact others.
As to Itzkoff’s portrayal of himself … his issues with his father seem to cloud his entire life. This is, at first, sad — after all, who wants to see someone live their life solely in response to one other person? Then, about halfway through, the whole thing gets melodramatic. Itzkoff sees his father everywhere, and the man is ruining everything! Then, he’s feeling guilty for being angry at his father. He’s a bad son. Then, we’re back to what a jerk his father is. And then … well, he gets married, and suddenly can see where his father was coming from all along.
Excuse me? What? If your father was so bad, how did he become less bad with time? Did you, perhaps, merely mature to a point where most of us get — where you can accept others for who they are? Most of us haven’t had parents who did coke, surely, but most of Itzkoff’s father’s behavior wasn’t because of his drug use, since it continued well after he became sober. My only conclusion is that Itzkoff’s father is like most father’s, only more egocentric. Most of us manage to come to terms with a self-absorbed parent without writing a self-indulgent memoir.
I looked forward to reading Cocaine’s Son, thinking I was going to get a thoughtful exploration of a childhood spent with an addict parent. What I got was a well-written yet sadly lacking family story.