In 1942, New York Times war correspondent Byron “Barney” Darnton died while covering World War II in the Pacific. His son John Darnton was only 11 months old when Barney was killed by a piece of shrapnel.
The younger Darnton’s Almost a Family, in which he traces the irrevocable effects of his father’s death, can best be described as an investigative memoir. Darnton spends the first half of the book describing a childhood without a stable male influence before devoting another chunk to recreating the memory of a man he barely knew. Overall, it’s a poignant look at one man’s efforts to put the pieces of his shattered family back together.
After Barney died, the parenting responsibilities fell to John’s mother, Eleanor. The family’s unexpected second act starts promisingly before a failed news service and raging alcoholism cause Eleanor to unravel, forcing John and his older brother, Bob, to adapt. Before their mother’s recovery, John is shuffled to the homes of sympathetic relatives and neighbors, forced to become independent far too soon.
The author turns out just fine, becoming a novelist and a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for the New York Times, his father’s beloved stomping grounds. Darnton then uses those award-winning reporting skills to reconstruct his parents’ past, especially that of his father, who displayed an unquenchable thirst for women and was ill-prepared for the events that unfolded on his last day.
What makes Almost a Family so attractive despite its flaws—the younger Darnton’s newspaper days slow the narrative, and the shift from memoir to reporting is distracting—is that no matter how many questions you ask or how much research you uncover, the dead can’t be defined. “We spend our time upon the earth and then disappear, and only one-thousandth of what we were lasts,” he writes. “We send all those bottles out into the ocean and so few wash up onshore.”
Darnton’s search for answers isn’t weepy abandonment entertainment; it’s the real deal, and one from which many readers will gain solace.