Twenty years ago while my father was going through a long, painful process of dying, I read William Wharton’s novel Dad. My father shared with the eponymous lead character in equal parts traits that were both admirable and deplorable. During a very difficult time, it was a very touching, emotionally wrenching read.
In a very real way, I probably could not have gotten through that time without it. Books can be like that. The right book at the right time can change your life. Though not necessarily a great or even lasting work of literature, nonetheless Dad did change mine.
Recently William Wharton himself passed away. Or perhaps I should say Albert du Aime. You see, that’s another story: the story of William Wharton himself.
Wharton’s passing was noted respectfully in the major literary outlets internationally: the New York Times, the Guardian of London, the Los Angeles Times, the Edinburgh Scotsman, the London Independent, the Boston Globe, and many, many more. Yet ironically, very little was known about the man, so little, in fact, that the same error was repeated in two of the obituaries and retracted the next day in both news sources in, ahem, remarkably similar wording.
One suspects that’s exactly how William Wharton (or Albert du Aime) would have liked that.
Wharton was born Albert du Aime in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. His first vocation was art, for which he received some renown. Again in the obits, he is variously described as an impressionist or expressionist painter, as if the terms were casually interchangeable.
Again, one can almost hear the chuckle from the other side.
Du Aime delved into writing late in life and with that new direction he chose a new name: William Wharton. I first became aware of his work in the late 70’s when I heard it being read on WNEW-FM, New York, by the wonderfully eclectic rock and roll dj, Vin Scelsa.
Literature on pop radio, you say, how can that be? Well, those were different times, when dj’s could actually program what they did and did not play. It was called free form radio. If you’ve never heard it, you don’t know what you missed, or rather, are missing. Because it is making something of a comeback due to the still “free form” Internet. Even Mr. Scelsa, no longer purely rock and roll, is still around and still one of the foremost purveyors of the art form. He can be heard, in New York and on the net, courtesy WFUV, public radio, on his now charmingly titled weekly show, Idiot’s Delight.
To veer gently back from an impending digression, I should say that one Sunday morning I got up and turned on the radio and Mr. Scelsa was reading a passage from Wharton’s first and most famous novel, Birdy. Scelsa’s passion for the written word in general and the novel at hand was infectious. As a result of this passion, books became a regular part of his Sunday show and Birdy became a bestseller.
Birdy is a book my father read and loved. As he had turned me on to Thomas Hardy, I returned the favor with Birdy. The novel tells of the lifelong friendship of two boys, Al and Birdy, their divergent paths, and a reunion later in life. From a young age, Birdy is obsessed with birds, obsessed in deep, at times disturbing, ways. He goes off to war and is damaged in the horrifying way that war can damage someone in the prime of life. The novel recounts their lives and the story of how Al attempts to break through to his best friend who has become unhinged.
Somewhere along the line, my father somehow ended up with a bird, a parakeet, perhaps from a family member who could no longer care for it. At times, the parakeet seemed to be his one and only companion, a companion he treated like an equal and gave the run of the house. Variously it would light on his shoulder or hand or head and, one of his favorite places, the lip of his drink, from which it would take a modest nip now and again, clinking the cubes delicately as only a bird might.
Fiction sometimes has a funny way of influencing reality.
Wharton had a fairly respectable, two decade plus career as a novelist, which he balanced with his painting, selling his work on the streets of Paris, his adopted home, and living for a while on a houseboat with his family, which he chronicled in his memoir, Houseboat on the Seine. As with his wartime experiences that served as a model for his characters in Birdy, tragedy seemed never to be far from his life. In 1988, he lost his daughter, son-in-law, and two grandchildren to a freakish, devastating 23 car crash in Oregon caused by heavy smoke from a nearby farm field. Ever After: A Father’s True Story is the memoir of his attempt to deal with this literally and emotionally.
Wharton leaves behind many other wonderful books besides Birdy and Dad. Two of my favorites are Scumbler, about the everyday life and family of an eccentric Parisian painter, and Franky Furbo, which may be one of the strangest books ever written. The site Fantastic Fiction describes it succinctly as being about “a family and a fox named Frank Furbo. It has no equal.” The book is based on the stories Wharton used to tell his children about a fox named Franky Furbo, who may have come from the future. Written the year after his daughter’s passing, it seems to be simultaneously his homage to her memory and his attempt to console his deep grief. Wharton himself described it as “children’s tales for adults.” On the surface, it is the story of a certain William Wiley who believes he has rescued a magical fox during World War II and attempts to convince his unbelieving family. The story takes place in four contemporary decades and is also set 50,000 years in the future.
It’s literally one for the ages.
When it comes to the unusual and eccentric, Wharton takes the cake. He published his last novel in English (Last Lovers) in 1991 . Inexplicably, he has a huge fan base in Poland and subsequently published a number of works translated from English into Polish but never published in English, including Al, supposedly something of a sequel to Birdy. All this no doubt seems a bit like a William Wharton novel or some digression therein.
In some ways, it is difficult to write an appreciation about an author who consciously chose not to indiscriminately divulge details of his private life. Yet, simply put, the man shines through the words; in fact, he has written his own appreciation. Though he will probably go the way of many long-forgotten authors, his works for now live on with those whose lives they’ve touched.
During his final days, in the throes of various deliriums, my father would occasionally become seemingly lucid and ask me if I were writing all this down, if I was going to get all the details right for my book, the book evidently about him. As one does with those temporarily disconnected from the everyday, I assured him not to worry, I was taking it all down. I didn’t really believe I had a book in me, but nonetheless the details never faded from all those years ago, so many years before anyone could conceive of something called a blog post.
Thanks, William Wharton, thanks Albert du Aime, thanks Franky Furbo, thanks Birdy, and most of all thanks Dad.
I couldn’t have made it without you.