An acclaimed author reflects on his upbringing in a post–World War II blue-collar family and comes to terms with the racism, sexism, and other toxic values he inherited.
Finalist for the 2014 New England Book Award in Non-Fiction
Richard Hoffman sometimes felt as though he had two fathers: the real one who raised him and an imaginary version, one he talked to on the phone, and one he talked to in his head. Although Hoffman was always close to the man, his father remained a mystery, shrouded in a perplexing mix of tenderness and rage. When his father receives a terminal cancer diagnosis, Hoffman confronts the depths and limitations of their lifelong struggle to know each other, weighing their differences and coming to understand that their yearning and puzzlement was mutual.
With familial relationships at its center, Love & Fury draws connections between past and present, from the author’s grandfather, a “breaker boy” sent down into the anthracite mines of Pennsylvania at the age of ten, to his young grandson, whose father is among the estimated one million young black men incarcerated today. In a critique of culture and of self, Hoffman grapples with the way we have absorbed and incorporated the compelling imagery of post WWII America and its values, especially regarding class, war, women, race, masculinity, violence, divinity, and wealth.
A masterful memoirist, Hoffman writes not only to tell a gripping story but also to understand, through his family, the social and ethical contours of American life. At the book’s core are the author’s questions about boyhood, fatherhood, and grandfatherhood, and about the changing meaning of what it means to be a good man in America, now and into the future.
“In a time when so much American writing seems to be inspired by situational comedies on television, by blockbuster films and sexy blogs, what a soul-saving joy it is to encounter Richard Hoffman’s masterful and necessary Love & Fury. What makes Hoffman so good at the memoir form is a rare combination of honest self-scrutiny, fairness, intellectual rigor, and emotional bravery. But what makes this book so important is what Hoffman excavates here layer by layer: how shaped and often shackled we are by the past, one that is bloody, racist, patriarchal, and as class-stratified as ever. With a poet’s ear and a short story writer’s eye, this fine memoir will move you the way all great literature does—it will wake you up, it will make you see, it may even change how you live this one life you’ve been given.” —Andre Dubus III, author of Townie: A Memoir
“A terrific memoir by an articulate writer who has honed his literary skills over a lifetime, who knows what he is thinking and feeling at every moment (as opposed to what he should be thinking and feeling), Love & Fury sets new standards for honesty, daring and bracing self-examination. Hoffman peels away the lies, vanities and convenient half-truths in a struggle to attain that rarest and seemingly least-valued of contemporary virtues, humility. He is aided by a pack of troubles, which keeps the story-telling tense, gripping and fierce. Hoffman shows us just how complex a business is it to try to be decent, day to day, in a perfect storm of ambivalence.” —Phillip Lopate
“Love & Fury is as clear, as elemental, as essential, as water. Richard Hoffman has a remarkable way of conjuring his flesh and blood onto the page while at the same time allowing them to dissolve in our hands. He tracks what is known, what is remembered, what is surmised, and comes to the edge of what will always remain a mystery—then, again and again, takes one thrilling step across that threshold.” —Nick Flynn, author of Another Bullshit Night in Suck City
“Love & Fury says something true and revelatory about the broken but stubborn connection between fathers and sons. I read page on page with my mouth open, my own heart-breaking memories flooding alongside Hoffman’s. This is the book I needed—though when I took it up, I did not know that. I am grateful that this hard work has been done, and we have this comfort—an unsparing examination of just how resilient family can be.” —Dorothy Allison, author of Bastard Out of Carolina
“Sifting the connections between our fathers and ourselves is often an exhausting, frustrating and somehow irresistible business. Few have explored them with such rigor, compassion and exemplary self-scrutiny as Richard Hoffman. His Half the House, brilliant and challenging, is an extremely tough act to follow; in Love & Fury, Hoffman manages it with characteristic candor, insight and grace.” —Jabari Asim, author of The N Word
“A reckoning with searing disappointment, Love & Fury is, equally, the transformation of disappointment into the true expression that alone defines our hope.” —James Carroll, author of Warburg in Rome
We’re sitting in the kitchen, at the scarred Formica table, my father and my brother Joe and I, having just finished the kind of meal we have had innumerable times in the twenty-three years since my mother died: take-out hot dogs from “Yocco, the Hot Dog King” with a side of deep-fried pierogies, or maybe it was microwaved Lloyd’s Roast Beef Barbecue from a plastic container in the fridge, or strip steaks on the George Foreman Grill, with a side of microwaved instant mashed potatoes. I can’t recall for certain what we ate that night, maybe because my father has asked us to meet with him after supper to go over his will, and the two steel boxes have been there on the table next to the tall plastic bottle of orange soda throughout the meal, keeping their secrets to themselves. I know what’s in at least one of them, though: birth certificates, death certificates, account numbers, records, directions, the deeds to graves. It’s two weeks since he’s been diagnosed with MDS, myelodysplastic syndrome, a condition that, at his age, eighty-one, almost always becomes leukemia. He has everything in order, he says. It’s all right here in the boxes.
“Now the will’s pretty simple,” he tells us, “everything’s split down the middle so there’s nothing for the two of you to fight about.” He has told each of us the same thing in the past two weeks, and Joe and I have talked about it on thephone. “You want the toaster oven or the Foreman grill?” my brother joked. It’s true that there wasn’t much to split up. My father had a story he liked to tell about sitting down with my mother at the kitchen table once each month to pay bills and putting all the bills in my mother’s stockpot and drawing them out one by one, writing checks till the money was gone. “And that was that,” he’d say. “If we ran out of money before we got to you, well then you went back in the pot next month.”
Once when I was young and knew, according to my father, neither the difference between shit and shine-ola, nor my ass from my elbow, on a holiday visit home from college, I chimed in with a lame coda to my father’s anecdote, trying to augment the good humor of it, give it a little extra spin. As my father drew the story to its canonical close, “well then you went back in the pot next month,” I wisecracked that I finally understood why we never had a pot to piss in, another expression of my father’s. “You guys were using it as the Accounts Payable Department!”
My father looked at me blankly as if he didn’t get it. Then, before I could compound my mistake by trying to explain it, he rose from his chair.
“You little punk,” he muttered as he left the room. I had tripped a switch and plunged my father from the safety of his lyric, humorous, emblematic scene into deep shame and remembered desperation, the very emotions that his ritual telling, with its shrug and goofball smile, its cavalier “fuck ’em” attitude, was meant to exorcise. I was of course the one who didn’t get it, sitting there on my elbow with a shine-ola-eating grin on my face. I was not the one who had stood against a wall at six in the morning for the shape-up, hoping to get picked to work like a donkey for the next twelve hours. I was not the one who’d had to go down to the PP&L office with money made from cleaning out somebody’s suburban garage just to get the lights turned back on. I was not the one who felt humiliated the year our Christmas presents came from the Salvation Army, complete with tags that said, Boy, 6–8 years old. My father had taken all those years and all that shame and locked them in a little box of a story, and just when he was clicking it shut again, as he had so many times before, I propped the lid open a moment longer with my fatuous cleverness, and a monstrous cloud, a genie of shame, escaped.
Everyone in my family considered themselves middleclass, all my aunts and uncles, each and every household, whether anyone had a job or not, regardless of what kind of work they did when there was work, regardless of whether or not they had “a pot to piss in.”
We never used the word “class.” My father called us working people. He always said we were working people, and he wanted me to be proud of it. I was a good student. School came easily to me, and I couldn’t wait to be the first in my family to go to college. And my father, conflicted in ways that he showed by barking, shouting, kicking things, and occasionally knocking me down, let me know that he was scared for me, jealous, proud of me, and betrayed.
I remember the day I announced to my father that, football scholarship or not, I was going to college. “Whattya think, your last name’s Rockefeller?” I had asked him for his signature on the loan papers I’d left on the kitchen table with the glossy view book from Fordham University. When I first brought home the booklet, with its views of a Gothic clock tower, stained-glass windows, a wrought-iron gate, my mother held it at arm’s length and tucked her chin as if it smelled suspicious, but in fact she didn’t have her glasses handy and held it that way because she was what she called “far-sighted.”
“Classy-looking joint,” she pronounced.
“We don’t have that kind of money,” my father said. “Look around here, knucklehead, you see a Cadillac out front? A swimming pool in the back?” I’m sure I said something insolent then because he was after me as I headed for the door. He grabbed the neck of my varsity jacket and we pushed and pulled and wrestled until I escaped, leaving him holding the jacket, inside out. As I turned in the doorway to shout something else and get a good hold to slam the door, I saw him turn it back right side out and, quietly, tenderly, brush it off and hang it in the hall closet. Later, when I came back, the papers were upstairs on my bed, signed.
- Love and Fury is a finalist for the 2014 New England Book Awards (Nonfiction)
- Richard Hoffman's essay on the difficulty of truth in memoir on Biographile
- The Summer 2014 issue of Voice Male Magazine features two excerpts, an author photo, and jacket cover from Love & Fury.
- Joan Silverman of Portland Press Herald writes that Hoffman asks the question, “What does it mean to be a good man in today’s world?” How do you think Hoffman defines a “good man”? Do you think he believes himself to be one?
- Nicholas Mancusi of Minneapolis Star Tribune states that the book is “a lesson in how to put a stop to cycles of inherited negativity?” Would Hoffman agree that the memoir works as a “lesson”? Do you think that this “inherited negativity” is strictly a reflection of Richard Sr., or is it more a product of generational and class upbringing? Does Hoffman put a stop to these cycles?
- Writer Andre Dubus III describes Hoffman as writing “with a poet’s ear and a short story writer’s eye.” What do you think he means by this, and how does this description illustrate Hoffman’s ability to deeply capture his relationship with his father and children? Do you think Hoffman captures certain characters more as a poet and others more as a short story writer?
- Hoffman says, “I think that a successful memoir leads the author away from the self.” Do you think that Hoffman succeeds at this in Love & Fury? Is he able to use his own life to comment on more universal issues?
- Hoffman begins the book with the James Baldwin quotation, “The Responsibility of a writer is to excavate the experience of the people who produced him.” In Love & Fury, do you think Hoffman successfully excavates the experience of the people who “produced him”, or does the book become more an excavation of his own experience? Do you think Hoffman’s own life is in some ways a reflection of the lives of the family that produced him?
- Hoffman writes, “We never used the word ‘class’. My father called us working people. He always said we were working people, and he wanted me to be proud of it.” Do you find American Society stratified by class? Do you think of yourself as belonging to a class in our society? Do you interact with other defined classes?
- On page 18, Richard Sr. apologizes to Hoffman when he says, “You were dealing with a lot back then, and I wasn’t there for you. You needed your dad, and I wasn’t there for you.” From Hoffman’s description of his father, what qualities of Richard Sr. made him unable to help his son during such a traumatic and painful time in his life? Do you see any similar qualities echoed in Hoffman’s relationship to Robert and Veronica?
- In recounting Richard Sr.’s apology, as well as his effort to send the abusive little league coach to prison, Hoffman writes, “He took it on himself as a moral failing he had to put right, and I’d considered the account more than squared.” What does this say about his ability to forgive? Do you think his capacity for forgiveness is in part a reflection of his relationship with his father?
- On page 35, Hoffman writes, “I wrote my black characters just like all the other people I knew, white people. I wrote them in blackface.” Why is Hoffman unable to write from the point of view of an African American community? Do you think Hoffman’s subconscious racism in the book is a reflection of values inherited from his father and uncle and grandfather? Or, is it more an illustration of a broader cultural racism that transcends generations?
- On page 45, Hoffman writes, “Until then I had always thought of myself as the son in the story of the Prodigal Son. I was unprepared to play the father.” Does Hoffman’s fear of being like his father hamper his ability to father his own children? What do you think this says about the importance of the relationship between fathers and sons across generations?
- Why does Hoffman frequently visit Damion in prison? Do you think he does it for Veronica, or for his grandson, or does he truly want to build a relationship with his grandson's father?
- Hoffman writes on page 71, “It was never clearer to me that the difference between our lives had been determined by the color of our skins”. What does this line say about the relationship between race and class? Sitting across from Damion in prison, does Hoffman just now realize the racism of the class system in America? If so, is this because it is the first time he is personally affected by it?
- Do you agree with Hoffman’s sentiment that his father was “more comfortable with his many contradictions” than Hoffman is with his?
- What expectations did Hoffman have for his son Robert? Did he expect him not to fall into the same problems that he himself had fallen into? Do you think this is fair or unfair?
- In what ways does Veronica’s child change the relationship between Hoffman and his father?
- In recalling driving through African American neighborhoods as a child, Hoffman writes, “Black people. I’d never seen so many black people. I was morbidly fascinated and wondered what was wrong with them; didn’t they know how to live?” How do Hoffman’s views on class progress from this point into his adulthood? What is the reason for this progression?
- Do you think Hoffman is right to take some responsibility for his son Robert’s meltdown, or should Robert be held more accountable for his own actions? Do you or others in your circle find yourself feeling responsible for the acts of your children?
- Which event described in the book do you find to be the most important turning point in Hoffman’s life?
- What is the significance of Hoffman repeating the phrase, “don’t be fooled”, throughout the book?
- Do you think Hoffman wants the reader to feel a certain way about Damion? Do you sympathize with Damion as a product of his circumstances, or do you fault him for putting himself in his position?
- Hoffman considers the book an examination of “war and violence and patriarchy and family and marriage and racism and money and misogyny and sexuality and class and all the ways these things intersect.” Which character or characters do you find most moving and most effective in helping Hoffman examine these issues?
- Hoffman presents his father and himself as men of “many contradictions”. Is this something specific to these two, or does Hoffman describe it as something present in all men? What does this say about Hoffman’s depiction of gender roles? Which character do you find most contradictory?
- Does one particular character resonate most with your own personal life? Which character do you find the most frustrating?
- On page 198, Hoffman calls Catholicism the “world’s oldest boys’ club”. What does he mean by this?
- Do you agree with Hoffman’s title claim that “families seem to be made of love and fury.” Why did he choose this as the title? What about this passage represents an underlying theme of the book?