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The lingering presence of absent fathers

Another B— Night in S— City: A Memoir
By Nick Flynn
Norton, 288 pp., $23.95

Assembling My Father: A Daughter’s Detective Story
By Anna Cypra Oliver
Houghton Mifflin, 355 pp., illustrated, $25

My mother's death, at 52, may have been the de.ning moment of my life so far, but even so I remain flabbergasted, eight years later, by the enormous quantity of parent-focused memoirs published. As I look them over, the in.nitely complex, messy world of relationships narrows to two tiny pinpricks, and I wonder: Is this because Freud was right, or simply because of Freud? Will there come a day when our obsession with our parents will seem a passing vogue? And until then, is it possible to add anything new to the conversation?

That last question is a hyped-up, nervous one, of course; no sooner do I think it than I'm proven wrong. All it points to, really, is the dif.culty of tackling a subject that stretches back to Oedipus. But being denied the opportunity for thematic innovation can be a good thing; to operate within a received framework is to be spared certain authorial tasks. The reader knows what it's like to have a parent, to be a child; this doesn't need to be explained. The author's embellishments -- the quality of perception and thought, slightly tilted angles, rearranging of dusted-off memories -- are what make the story, not the story line itself.

That Nick Flynn and Anna Cypra Oliver exercised these liberties in spite of having as literary ammunition unconventional parent/child stories makes their resourcefulness all the more impressive. And as it happens, both did so in part by playing loose with the book's structure.

Flynn's tough, lovely memoir, "Another B -- Night in S -- City," is a swift, accomplished weaving of two trajectories: his father's and his own.

As a young man, Jonathan Flynn was a grandiose no-account who relied on the strength of his personality and impressive-sounding but unrealized ambitions -- he considered himself a writer, and talked about it constantly, but couldn't seem to sit still long enough to actually write.

Of course, it's hard to write, or do much of anything, when you're constantly drunk. The indisputable love and devotion of Nick's mother couldn't make up for the fact that there was never enough money or time; when Nick was a teenager she committed suicide. Thus began Nick's years-long depression, during which he drifted in and out of college, ultimately working as a caseworker at the Pine Street shelter in Boston, which is how he finally, at the age of 27, came to know Jonathan, by this time still a grandiose drunk, but also homeless.

The merging of Nick's narrative with his father's is so seamless as to almost make it seem they were never separate to begin with, which, of course, they weren't; his story is eerie testimony to the potent in.uence of an absent parent. But Nick, a poet, is too subtle a writer to say so outright, and instead lets us draw our own conclusions with a delicate, poetic logic. In place of a straight narrative he builds a spine of interlocking memories and fragments that, for all its gentle overlapping, still pushes the story forward page by page.

Oliver, too, has created an elegant, intelligent hodgepodge with "Assembling My Father," the story of how as a young woman she set out to reconstruct the father she'd never known; he'd shot himself at 35, when she was a child. The only facts she'd ever had were sparse -- something about drugs, a marriage gone south. All her life he'd been nothing but a dubious ghost. But as soon as Oliver started asking questions, a different picture not only emerged, but upended the first: brilliant, charismatic, talented, he'd been a hero to those who had known him, making his suicide all the more incomprehensible.

Oliver's book -- a collage of short and long chapters, letters, e-mails, even scrawlings and doodles from his journals -- is a relic of her father's life, and her own quest.

Oliver's decision to make her quest the engine of her book was a wise one; it establishes in the reader a sense of investment.

When she's first given her father's journal, we share her amazement. As she holds off reading it for a while, we're sympathetic but impatient. When she .nally sits down a month later in her darkened living room and opens it, we can hardly wait to peer inside.

>Kate Bolick is the deputy features editor of The New York Sun. Her column appears every other month.

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