Often, we make sense of our lives by making sense of other people’s lives. We strive to understand our mother or father or sister or spouse; sometimes a child; even a stranger, someone we never actually knew. Sometimes we turn to places—a city, a town, a country—home. Sometimes we turn to things—substances, a hobby, a game. And sometimes we turn to books.
The first great book I ever read, and the only great book I’ve read as many as five or six times since, is Ulysses. That said, I still don’t understand it completely. Perhaps that’s why I return to it.
I did so again last June, when, as I was walking up Greenwich Street with bags of greens from the Koreans, fresh fish from the fish guy, cheese from the Amish stand, and a six-pack of Guinness, a phrase came to me that made me stop and put all my things down: I’ve spent most of my life trying to make sense of a mistake. It was an epiphany—I owe that concept to Joyce, too—right there around Desbrosses Street. If I unpacked that sentence, I felt, all would become clear. In trying to do so, I ended up in Dublin, June 16, 1904.
I’ve had my troubles in life: divorced three times, I am the father of two sons, one who is incarcerated, the other college age but not in college, now living with me and my fourth wife. Neither of my boys is happy; each feels something went wrong in their lives, and that it is probably me. I’ve had successes, too: books of poetry published, a long career at a well-respected magazine. For a small-town kid from the Adirondacks, I’ve been lucky to end up knowing real writers and publishing people and feeling connected to a pulse of intellectual and literary life in New York City—enjoying its culture, its newspapers, its ethnic consciousness, its politics, its ball clubs. And most importantly, I've found stability in a sustaining marriage, a safe harbor from which I hope to be able to help my sons.
So it is now, into my sixth decade—after years as a poet recording sensations as I felt them in language, and being content with that merry but at times dissolute project—that a need for a stronger, ennobling narrative to my life has welled up. I ache for it. For the lack of it, I fear my heart will turn to stone. I cannot afford this. I need only one thing to make things right, to make the right story: a reconciliation with my sons.
As I stood there on that Tribeca street, the noise within me of my recent efforts boomed—perhaps 100,000 words thrown toward a memoir that sought to thread my experience as an adoptee, my proclivity for fantasy, my failure to maintain a family, and now these two sons, men really, who feel in their own ways that their father the orphan has abandoned them. This I needed to make sense of.
I’d been hammering at this memoir for six years—since I found the identity of my birth parents (turns out I’m from Philadelphia via Donegal and Mayo). But it was failing and I knew why it was failing: I kept waiting for my sons to redeem me, for them to write my ending for me; to let me off the hook. But they were having none of it. They had their lives; mine had stalled.
So I looked to Ulysses—because it is a Great Book and a great story of a father and a son—Leopold Bloom, the Irish Jewish advertising canvasser, whose father had committed suicide and whose only son, Rudy, died in childhood 11 years ago at 11 days old; and Stephen Dedalus, a tormented and unfulfilled intellectual whose mother had recently died, whose father to him was a distant boor, and whose own country and capital city were alien forces. Joyce set these two fellows in motion—on an odyssey—on a summer morning in Dublin, and their paths would eventually cross. In the small hours of the following morning, with the sky lightening, they would share cups of cocoa in Bloom’s home at 7 Eccles Street.
All this I knew. I knew it when I first read Ulysses in college, then in graduate school, and in the new Gabler version that was published in 1986, and so on. But this time, I was looking for something—and because it was not there I found another thing.
Here’s the problem with Ulysses for many people: it starts out great and then gets stranger and stranger. Even boring. The stylistic range of the book—and its wandering away from the tight story to some exploration of, say, the history of English prose—is the key to its greatness for Joyce fans, and I’ve always embraced this. But this time through, I was looking for something on the level of the plot. I was looking for that reconciliation of father and son.
It isn’t there.
After six chapters charting the movements of Dedalus and Bloom from the hours of 8 a.m. till 11 a.m., and doing so in the revolutionary stream-of-consciousness style for which he is famous (“Stephen bent forward and peered at the mirror held out to him, cleft by a crooked crack. Hair on end....Who chose this face for me? ), Joyce, in the remaining dozen chapters, embarks upon a series of increasingly audacious experiments for which he is also famous (“Roun wi the nappy. Here, Jock braw Hielentman’s your barleybree. Lang may your lum reek and your kailpot boil!”).
Where to find father and son in this thicket? True, Bloom rescues Dedalus—in a brothel—and picks him up after he’s been slugged by a British soldier. The two walk to Bloom’s house near sunrise, have their hot cocoa. Yet Dedalus turns down Bloom’s offer of a bed, and wanders off, never to appear again. And Bloom returns to his own bed, where his unfaithful wife, Molly—spent from an afternoon’s dalliance—is sound asleep in dream.
On the plot level, Ulysses is unfinished, unresolved. Yet it is a great book. And why? Because, as a novel, as an experiment in literary anthropology, urban archeology, and psychological probity, it is, in fact, completely resolved. Joyce arrays before us, in one day, and laid across a scheme, literally, of Homeric dimension, all that the English language has proved itself capable of reflecting. It absorbs and transforms a classic journey. Bloom, as Odysseus, comes home to his Penelope. The son, Stephen, as Telemachus, is accounted for, and merely that—they do not together, father and son, beat away the suitors of Penelope (in this case, one Hugh “Blazes” Boylan). But Bloom finds contentment nonetheless—he tenderly kisses his wife’s rump as he enters the bed. “Yes,” the book famously closes with. And indeed it is an affirmation—a completely satisfying aesthetic resolution. The improbable reconciliation of father and son on the narrative level did not have to happen for this story to stand. Only a good book had to find its finish. And Joyce found it.
I realized after this reading that my life would not find a narrative resolution simply because I wished and waited for it—for my boys to be happy. The memoir would now be on its own—having to find its own resolutions. It would leave the fathering of sons to me, a different job altogether, and a job better performed freed from literary intent. It seems so obvious now. This year, when Bloomsday turns into Father’s Day, I know what to do. I’ve made sense of something. I have a book to thank, one to finish, and fathering still to do.
Michael Coffey is co-editorial director at Publishers Weekly and the author of three books of poems. He has recently published stories in Conjunctions and the New England Review.