The nemesis of this short, complex novel is a steely, sadistic father whose son’s attempts to love him, or at least vanquish him, are constantly deflected. Dad is a New York industrialist and huntsman, whose manorial uptown townhouse boasts a mini-museum devoted to his passion for armor. His son, the narrator, lives downtown in a squalid loft. He’s an unsuccessful, alcoholic sculptor, whose obsession with his father colors every aspect of his life. Even his tiny metal sculptures, which rarely sell, are tributes to Dad’s collection of massive suits of armor. But when Dad, now blind, pays a surprise visit to the opening of his show, the son is once again destroyed by his attitude of ridicule and superiority.
Exterminating dads, creaking armor, and nebbishy sons are apt to make for some very gloomy reading. However, Hauser, who is 91, the author of the Pulitzer Prize-nominated Prince Ishmael, and perhaps now at the height of her linguistic prowess, enlivens the story with her exalted, comic style and ingenious metaphors. She hilariously captures the son’s obsession with his father when he mentions that “it sure would tickle his animus if not his anus to know how he can play fast and loose with my superstitions.”
Recurring moments of intimidation in the narrative always take on visionary urgency for the rejected son. He pictures his dad “holding court by the fire in a chiaroscuro of aged mahogany and tooled leather.” The idea of armor, which is flexible yet impervious, slowly balloons into a grotesque metaphor for the wily, unattainable dad. The son’s bathetic attempts to get recognition take the shape of a dark, slapstick joust.
Like Kafka’s story “The Judgment,” Shootout With Father is a distressing parable of oedipal competition. The narrator has been condemned by an implacable father against whom he has committed no tangible crime. Perhaps the only chink in the father’s armor is revealed by a packet of love letters his defeated wife shows her son on the sly. In these letters, sentiment is directed not at the mother, but at a college teacher the father idolized.
Despite the homosexual implications of this theme and some of the son’s fantasies about a fez-wearing taxi driver or a former male art teacher, any kind of love between men in this novel becomes an inescapable oxymoron. But this dismal tragedy is transformed by Hauser’s linguistic brilliance, turning it into a torrent of gorgeous language, biting wit, and high black comedy.