In “The Sinking of the Houston,” your story in this week’s issue of the
magazine, a father of three teen-agers loses the ability to sleep. “A
round-the-clock jitteriness prevails.” Seeking peace and quiet, he likes
to sit in what he calls a Dad Chair, where he’s often pestered with
questions by his middle child. You write, “The phenomenon of the Dad
Chair needs no investigation here.” But indulge us with a little
investigation—could you tell us its dimensions, comfort level, what the
chair could offer that a regular armchair might not, especially for a
Every Dad Chair will vary, of course, but I would say that some kind of
footrest is highly characteristic. A true Dad Chair will disrupt the
decorative scheme of the home and will have a unique smell. Dad Chairs
also have a metaphysical dimension: whereas sitting in a regular
armchair is a temporary measure, a dad settling into his Dad Chair has
no intention of ever getting out of it again. He basically goes there to
The middle son and his friends head to Brooklyn, seeking a
skateboarding spot they’ve heard about. You name some fairly au-courant
skaters—what is the extent of your knowledge of skateboarding culture,
and how did you acquire it?
I don’t skate. My sons do, avidly, and over the years I’ve watched
hundreds of skate videos with them and filmed thousands of their tricks,
or attempted tricks. Landing a new trick is very difficult. It takes a
lot of skill, perseverance, and courage.
The skaters mentioned in the story are New York pros who are respected
and adored by East Coast teen-agers. (There’s a low-key, but
significant, East-vs.-West partition in American skating.) I’m a bit of
a Dennis Busenitz fan, although of course I’d watch any footage of
Rodney Mullen or Andrew Reynolds. Or, say, Aaron Homoki or Shane
O’Neill, who do very different things.
On the train to Brooklyn, the boys are mugged. The middle child has his
phone stolen. When he returns, the father realizes that the mugger is
still using the phone, and that he can track the man’s movements. It’s a
strange kind of surveillance, in which the father waits for the mugger
to come to him. Do you think that there’s some part of the father that
doesn’t really want this knowledge?
Surveillance is an end in itself. Undisclosed observation, however
fruitless, produces private knowledge, secret power—and a sense of
agency and potency that is almost certainly treacherous.
When the mugger finally travels into what the father describes as his
“turf”—the triangle made by Times Square, Penn Station, and the Port
Authority Bus Terminal—the father sets out to confront him, baseball bat
in hand. But, on the way, he falls into the company of his neighbor, a
veteran of the Bay of Pigs. The father slowly loses his desire to pursue
the mugger. Why?
The interpretation of motive really is the reader’s prerogative. In any
case, I’m not really sure why the father does he what he does. A basic
sense of mystification is precisely what can push one into writing about
something. You keep the plot going until you reach a point where you no
longer know what’s happening. Then you’re done.
The Bay of Pigs is the kind of historical debacle that the father’s
middle son likes to pester him about—Charles Taylor, East Timor, the
Duvaliers. The father is typically put off by such questions. Why do the
father and son have such different dispositions toward these questions,
initially? And what might we take from the father’s gradual reversal?
I would make a distinction between, on the one hand, the systematic
horrors of Liberia, East Timor, and Haiti and, on the other hand, the
chaotic opportunism of the Cuban counter-revolution. This distinction
has probably informed my treatment of the father’s response to these
issues. Either way, the father learns that he can’t permanently avoid a
reckoning with history’s violence and continuing relevance, however
painful it might be—that he can’t separate historical agency from his
personal agency. Right now, Americans are obviously very sensitive to
this question. The question of how to act is something that is keeping
many of us awake at night.