Some books make you think that the biggest mistake one can make in life is being born. There's a bit of that here, but there is also an element of inexplicable fortitude and good fortune.
John and Robert Darnton, the one a successful journalist, the other a distinguished academic, somehow managed to survive losing their journalist father early in WWII and then coping with their alcoholic mother until one wild and terrible night, the mother went through four episodes of DT's with only 14 year-old John to see her through...and after that never had a drink again. Subsequently, John followed Robert to Andover, an elite prep school, and the two of them, with ups and downs, stayed close enough to collaborate in tracking down the essential facts of their parents' lives. Example: their parents never actually married; example: their father died of "friendly fire" and didn't die right away, painlessly; example: both their parents slept around, married badly more than once, drank too much, and negligently contributed to an increasingly impoverished childhood for the boys...rescued at last by scholarships to Andover (which John managed to blow in a bad-boy phase of his turbulent adolescence.)
The formula here is substantial journalistic detective work revealing the facts of Barney Darnton's death in the waters off Papua New Guinea. Upon finding the exact place where his father died, and meeting men who saw Barney die and had his blood on their clothes, John finds a kind of peace.
In fact, it probably could be said that he (and Robert) did more to honor their father than their father ever did to honor them. Barney Darnton didn't have to cover the Pacific war theater, he was just that kind of journalist--he wanted to, never mind the little boys.
Having gone on to a distinguished career as a foreign correspondent, John Darnton seems to have understood Barney's drive, but as a close observer of foreign correspondents for many years, I can tell you they are all a strange lot. Being a foreign correspondent sometimes means dangerous action; more often it means boredom, crappy hotel rooms, and interminable travel, lightened chiefly by the camraderie foreign correspondents develop among themselves and with the "locals," whomever the locals may be.
Part of Almost a Family addresses John and Robert's mother attempting to challenge journalistic customs as a journalist herself. She did this through the 30s, 40s and 50s. It was a tough task; she often failed to succeed, which is how I prefer to put it as opposed to simply "failed." No doubt male hegemony in the newsroom contributed a bit to her reliance upon alcohol.
The great family memoir of our times, Angela's Ashes, possesses a species of compressed poetry that is lacking in Almost a Family. This book, written by a journalist, is pretty literal and fiercely researched. The question that arises with respect to all family sagas, however, is "compared to what?" The McCourts had a terrible time of it (drink playing its role), the Darntons had a terrible time of it...and so did the Kennedys...and so did your aunt and uncle. It does seem to me that a family memoir must have some kind of unity lurking within the family's demise. This tale is a bit spread out. We don't learn that much about the mature Robert Darnton, and for all the time spent on Barney Darnton,he comes across as a fine fellow among a group of not-so-fine fellows. The facts of his death are revealed more clearly that the spirit of his life, and it's just not clear how such parents, footloose and feckless, gave the world such extremely accomplished sons.
Is life, as my opening lines and this book suggest, an ongoing accident? Darnton doesn't quite make the mystic chords of memory and the past prove otherwise. Again, he's a journalist, and the story is the story. If you're interested in this particular story, read it If it strikes you as a story that won't move you, there's no compelling vision here that will make it worth your time.
Causes Robert Earle Supports
World Wildlife Fund