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An average memoir about a fascinating father

Fairyland: A Memoir of My Father
Alysia Abbott
W.W. Norton & Co.

When Alysia Abbott asked her father, the late American writer and editor Steve Abbott, what he thought of her first serious boyfriend, a Frenchman with whom she had hooked up while on a university exchange in Paris, Steve said, with characteristic honesty, "Bourgeois. You're both much more bourgeois than I was in my twenties."

Alysia was momentarily crushed, but then almost anyone would have been more bourgeois than Steve Abbott was in his 20s. By that tender age, he had struggled with his bisexuality in the Midwest of the 1960s, married and had a child, lost his wife in a car accident a couple years later, and then moved to San Francisco, where, plunging happily into the cultural and sexual ferment of the city, he transformed himself into an openly gay poet, novelist and tireless advocate for the flourishing Bay Area writing scene. Abbott is best-known now for coining the phrase "New Narrative," a loosely defined appellation for a tight-knit generation of mostly queer writers – including Kevin Killian, Dodie Bellamy, Robert Glück and, somewhat tangentially, Dennis Cooper and Kathy Acker – who strove to create a uniquely self-aware, deeply personal literature rich with sex, political consciousness, gossip and unabashed autobiography.

Fairyland, however, is a much more conventional autobiography, much less about Steve the writer than Steve the loving but reluctant single dad. And much less about Steve the single dad than Alysia, the young, motherless daughter he alternately fawned over and neglected. The freedoms that thrilled Steve suffocated and threatened Alysia, who, among other things, is left alone in their dingy Haight-Ashbury apartment, almost drowns at a pool party and gets lost while taking the bus at the age of 7. She craves normalcy and finds it only in summer retreats to her grandparents' Midwest home or in occasional visits to friends' houses. They're constantly broke, and Steve's single-minded devotion to his work, new community and boyfriends is a source of near-constant consternation to his daughter. Their mutual resentments only grow as Alysia, a deeply self-conscious misfit, becomes a teenager. "What kind of writer are you if no one's heard of you, and you make no money?" she screams at Steve one bitter day – words guaranteed to freeze-dry any writer's heart. And then, just as she is about to escape to college, Steve becomes HIV-positive.

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This is, to say the least, an unusually complicated and painful childhood and an even more unusual father-daughter love story. As a book, however, it's inconsistent, even surprisingly mundane. Now in her 40s and a (straight) parent, Abbott admirably channels her adolescent self, depicting her brattiest behaviour with great candour (it gets worse as Steve gets sicker). But the unsophisticated, wide-eyed prose too often feels as if it were written by a teenager for teenagers. (This is all the more jarring when compared with her father's more vibrant writing – Alysia's memories are supplemented with excerpts from Steve's journals and letters.) Still longing to assert her ordinariness – or arguably, to reinstate an innocence she lost too early – Abbott devotes excessive amounts of space to describing the commonplace: her clothes, boyfriends, insecurities and favourite sitcoms. There's relatively little about "Dad's boring friends," as she once thought of them, but then those romantic radicals are the real reason most readers would pick up the book.

Steve Abbott died of AIDS-related complications in 1992, when Alysia was 22, and Fairyland inevitably takes on a greater emotional urgency and density in its final sections. Like Steve before her, Alysia is thrust into a caretaker role that she isn't quite able to cope with, and her identification with him at last gives her a kind of purpose – to protect her father's legacy. For any young child, parents are their entire world, even when the converse isn't true. In Fairyland, Alysia Abbott is able to return Steve Abbott to the fragile world he loved so much and left too early.

Jason McBride is a freelance editor and writer who regularly contributes to Toronto Life, Maclean's, Hazlitt and other publications.

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