“Memory holds us until we are ready to see,” Deni Y. Béchard writes in his memoir, Cures for Hunger. The passage of time has given him a panorama from which to piece together the missing links of his life. Béchard’s book is his tale of the sometimes hardscrabble childhood he endured in British Columbia with a mother from Pittsburgh and a father of very vague origins. The existence was sometimes hand-to-mouth, with a father who sold fish during the summer and Christmas trees during the winter, ways of life that seemed to have as many ups and downs as the stock market.
The opening pages of the book set the tone for what follows, beginning with Béchard’s notification of his father’s suicide, then regressing to his youth when he and his brother are in a car with their father. They are parked on a train track, the engine off. In the distance, they hear the roar of a train engine and the boys begin to scream. At the last minute, the father turns the key in the ignition and frees them from the coming impact. This was his dad’s idea of fun, and as I read the book I began to have a sense of impending disaster, a feeling I took with me into my dreams as I perused Béchard’s book at night. With a feuding mother and father, tensions ran high in this family. I kept thinking that something bad was about to happen as I turned the pages; I didn’t know what, but at any moment on the next page, someone was going to do something stupid.
Béchard wants to be just like his father who is a fighter, a drinker, an outdoorsman, and a teller of tales. He emulates his violent behavior, bullying his schoolmates and dabbling in juvenile delinquency. But unlike his father, Béchard develops a love of books and writing, perhaps born out a need to escape his present reality. His father often derides him for this activity, discouraging him at every turn. Then, one day, Béchard comes to a conclusion about his father: “I realized he’d probably never read a novel. What was it like to be someone who’d never finished a last page, never experienced that amalgam of fullness and loss, satisfaction and longing?”
The realization of this rift is what eventually divides their lives, saving Béchard from entering the oblivion where his father’s footsteps led. As he grows older, he wonders why his father’s past is such a mystery, never hearing family members mentioned or meeting any relatives. It is a school assignment which brings this to light, when Béchard has to draw his family tree. It isn’t until his mother leaves his father, taking both him and his brother with her to Virginia, that he begins to learn the truth about his father. It seems dad was a career criminal with a healthy list of bank robbery on his resume—which, to young Béchard, seems like the coolest thing in the world. The ensuing struggle to come to terms with who his father is and was is beautifully mapped out in this memoir. Béchard writes, “I’d never managed to hold all the different versions of him in my head: the reckless, entertaining man I’d known as a boy; the criminal I’d imagined: or the fishmonger racketeer and thug.”
In his father’s last years, Béchard (now in college) reaches out to him to pin his story down and tell it in writing. “Novels seemed the products of that tension, between parents and children, between those they loved and struggled against. As I embraced these novels, it occurred to me increasingly that I knew next to nothing about my father’s past. That absence, the dim history that shaped him, refused to let him become whole.”
The book’s final moments—a father lamenting his past and foreshadowing his own death by suicide while a son scrambles to regain a relationship he perhaps never had but wanted—are movingly recounted. Béchard’s father is found dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound, a few days before Christmas, alone, destitute and in debt.
Béchard picks up the pieces and finally meets his father’s family. Like a damaged painting from the Renaissance which has been restored, he has, in the end, a portrait of his father. It is a fragmented one, but a working model. Writes Béchard: “His story belonged to me now, and in its telling he would return to those who lost him.”