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A Memoir

by (author) Keith Maillard

West Virginia University Press
Initial publish date
Oct 2019
  • Paperback / softback

    Publish Date
    Oct 2019
    List Price

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This story begins with a phone call out of the blue: a lawyer tells a writer that his ninety-six-year-old father, with whom he has had no contact since the age of three and whom he has twice tried to find without success, has just died, leaving him nothing. Half-reluctant, half-fascinated, both angry and curious, Keith Maillard begins to research his father’s life. The result is a suspenseful work of historical reconstruction—a social history often reading like a detective story—as well as a psychologically acute portrait of the impact of a father’s absence. Walking a tightrope between the known and the unknown, and following a trail that takes him from Vancouver to Montreal to his native Wheeling, West Virginia, Keith Maillard has pulled off a book that only a novelist of his stature could write.

About the author

Keith Maillard is the author of fourteen novels, including Two Strand River, Gloria, The Clarinet Polka, Difficulty at the Beginning, and most recently Twin Studies. He has won the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize and was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Literary Prize and the Governor General’s Literary Awards. Keith was born and raised in West Virginia, and now lives in Vancouver. He has been a musician, a contributor for CBC Radio, a freelance photographer, and a journalist. He teaches at the University of British Columbia.

Keith Maillard's profile page

Excerpt: Fatherless: A Memoir (by (author) Keith Maillard)


I was in my office at the university on an ordinary Monday morning—March 3, 1997—when I got the phone call, heard an unfamiliar man’s voice asking if I was Keith Maillard. I said I was. “Are you related to Eugene Charles Maillard?”

If I were writing this as a scene in a novel, I would write in a beat here for myself—a significant pause while I tried to absorb the impact of the question—but I didn’t hesitate at all. “Yes, that’s my father.”

“I’m sorry to have to tell you this, but your father has died.”

I don’t remember what I said—something to the effect of “Oh? Is that right?”

Later, when I would look at my agenda book, I would find that my right hand had taken off on its own and written “My father has died.”

An outside observer would have seen my body sitting at my desk, functioning normally, making all the right noises into the telephone, but I didn’t have a clue what I was feeling, and I can’t describe it clearly now. “Squashed flat and pinned on a cold hard wall” is not bad, but that image is working too hard and doesn’t get at the smeary unfocused blur of it. I could use psych jargon and call myself depersonalized, although that doesn’t really do it either. I do remember exactly what I was thinking. What the hell do you mean, he’s died? Do you mean he’s just died? How can that be? He was born in 1901, for Christ’s sake. He must have been dead for years.

He died on the 25th of February, the voice was telling me—apparently this was my father’s lawyer. My right hand continued to write down what he was saying. My father’s funeral had been yesterday—a Masonic service conducted by my father’s lodge in Escondido, California. My father had been cremated and his ashes scattered at sea. He’d been a remarkable man. He’d died just a few months short of his 96th birthday. He’d never lost his memory. He was lucid right up to the end.

“Oh, is that right?” I said. Why, I thought, should I give a shit whether or not he’d been lucid right up to the end?

The lawyer asked me for my address. He needed to send me legal documents. “I’m sorry to say that he didn’t leave you anything.”

“Uh-huh.” Was I supposed to be surprised by that? Disappointed? If I’d known about my father’s existence, I would have expected exactly what I’d always got from him—nothing.

I wrote down the lawyer’s number, thanked him for calling. How strange, I thought—how meaningless and useless and anticlimactic. I’d never known my father, had never felt any personal connection to him, so it really shouldn’t matter to me at all, but I seemed to be stuck at my desk. I had to find the next thing to do. I thought about a number of possibilities. I could cancel my class and go home, but that seemed melodramatic—a reaction out of all proportion to what had just happened—but what had just happened? Maybe nothing at all. Maybe I should just get on with my normal day. Or, if I was required to have an intense emotional reaction, I could go for a long walk. That’s the way I’ve always coped with stress, but was this stress? What was I feeling? Maybe I wasn’t feeling anything.

I called my wife Mary at work. She would tell me later that I sounded stunned and out of it. She asked me a series of perfectly logical questions. “How on earth did this lawyer find you?”

“I don’t know.”

“What do you mean you don’t know? Didn’t you ask him?”


“What did he tell you about your father?”

“I don’t know. Not much of anything.”

“Didn’t you ask?”

None of this was making any sense. My father was dead. His funeral was yesterday. He was cremated and buried at sea. “Are you all right?” she said.

“Oh, sure. I’m fine.”

She wanted the lawyer’s phone number, and I gave it to her. I walked out of my office, rode the elevator down four floors, stepped outside into the perfectly ordinary gray overcast Vancouver day, and my feelings caught up to me.

My father hadn’t appeared in my mind more than two or three times in the last ten years, so why was I so angry? And it wasn’t just anger, it was honest-to-God fury—too big, too far gone for rational control—the kind of anger that could blot out the universe. I knew I had to keep moving. I didn’t want to go striding off across campus headed for nowhere, so I paced back and forth in front of Buchanan—my building where I had a class scheduled in a little over an hour, where I would have to walk into the seminar room and impersonate not only a mature adult but a university professor. I was so angry I could see my own heartbeat in the sky. Of course I was talking to Gene Maillard, my dead father. “You son of a bitch. I spent my whole life not knowing a thing about you. You never gave me a thing. I tried to find you twice and got nowhere. You were absolutely elusive. You vanished into nothingness. And then, the day after your goddamned funeral, you can find me with no problem at all.”

Everybody has to have a father even if that father has no more human identity than a sperm cell. Did I always know that I had a father? I think I did, but when I unpack my earliest memories, what I find is a sense of things being “ordinary,” and for me that meant living with two women, my mother and grandmother. It took me awhile to understand that other people thought “ordinary” meant something else, so I didn’t know that I was different until I met other kids. They all seemed to have fathers. I learned to say what my mother had taught me: “My parents are divorced.” I learned to say what I had decided for myself must be true: “Oh, it doesn’t really matter. I don’t think about it at all.”

Whenever I asked my mother about my father, what I heard always sounded like a prerecorded message from the early days of radio. It wasn’t merely that the information never changed; the words themselves never changed. “He was a good dancer,” was the first thing she said about him. “He was the cheapest man who ever lived,” was the second. The first was the reason she’d married him, the second the reason she’d left him.

Editorial Reviews

“Marvelous and brutally honest.”
Marc Harshman, author of Woman in Red Anorak and poet laureate of West Virginia

“This memoir is an astonishing act of generosity and tenacity, exploring the profound flaws of one family’s dynamics and the resiliency of the human spirit.”
Eden Robinson, author of Son of a Trickster

Fatherless is Keith Maillard’s haunting response to that most ancient curse: Why, father, did you desert me? How, father, should I love you?”
Clark Blaise, author of I Had a Father

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