Monday, December 20, 2010

The anxiety of influence

On July 10, 1953, my father, James T. Breslin, reading The Herald Tribune while seated on the Flatbush Avenue IRT on his way to work, had a heart attack. He fell to the floor of the subway car and, despite efforts of some of his fellow passengers to revive him, died.

He was 49 years old. Even in middle age he was tall, lean, Tyrone Power handsome and athletic, having briefly played the outfield in the minor leagues. I always imagined him as a "rangy center fielder," moving smoothly backward and to his right to run down a line drive. He was also very smart, having won (as a boy) a scholarship taking him through a Jesuit high school and college.

But the college folded before he reached it; he quit baseball, married, worked as an accountant, helped support his and my mother's parents, and had two sons during the Depresssion. He grew conservative, frustrated, alcoholic. Living in an Irish Catholic working-class neighborhood in Brooklyn, he voted Republican and went to work in elegant three-piece suits as if he were an executive. At home, on week-nights, he sat quietly at dinner, still wearing his suit and tie, as he intently read The World-Telegram or worked on the crossword puzzle in the Sunday Times.

On Fridays he came home from work, removed his suit jacket, blue dress shirt, tie and shoes, then spent the weekend in his undershirt, suit pants and socks, drinking shots of Four Roses with beer chasers, taking naps, lurching through the house, loudly critical of his wife and sons. He frightened and embarrassed me. On Saturday afternoons in the summer, he and I watched Dodgers games on a small Philco television set. Sitting in his green armchair, a can of beer in his left hand and a Lucky Strike in his right, he would pronounce a Kirby Higbe pitch a curve; I then declared it a sinker. If the next pitch was hit down the right-field line and he called the ball foul, I insisted it was fair -- and so on through nine innings of empty dispute.

Then that morning -- two weeks after I was graduated from Brooklyn Prep, the same Jesuit high school he had attended -- he left for work, boarded the IRT, and disappeared.

Yet, even now, 40 years after my father's death, I am, in my dreams (as in my biography of Mark Rothko), still trying to breath the life back into him (or his substitute) -- as if a biographer were a paramedic administering decade after decade of CPR to a patient he refuses to admit he has lost.
-- from "Terminating Mark Rothko: Biography Is Mourning in Reverse," The New York Times Book Review, 1994, by James E. B. Breslin, my late father and the author of Mark Rothko: A Biography.