If memoirs are a form of public psychoanalysis, with readers playing the role of the quietly nodding therapist, then it’s no surprise that so many of them — from the likes of Augusten Burroughs, Jeannette Walls, Mary Karr, even Barack Obama — focus on parents and their shortcomings. Dave Itzkoff’s account of his father’s cocaine addiction and the havoc it wreaked has the steadied tone of someone who has spent a long time thinking about the things he is now ready to get off his chest.
For almost the entirety of his youth, Itzkoff’s father was a phantom, a coke-fueled shade materializing in the dead of night to deliver a rambling soliloquy to his half-asleep young son, and then disappearing again just as quickly. (”When I woke up in the morning, he would be gone, leaving me to wonder if I’d dreamed it all.”) But the majority of the action takes place years after Itzkoff has moved out on his own and his father has stopped using, as the two of them reflect, almost postmortem, on their relationship. They speak, but only sporadically, and usually in the form of volleys and countervolleys of blame.
There is a difficulty in writing a memoir in which the essential character is defined by absence, and Cocaine’s Son occasionally lacks a strong center. There is some formidable writing here, and many passages are movingly honest, but too much time is spent on Itzkoff’s attempts, as an adult, to understand his father’s failures and not enough on his actual experiences with the man. B