Powder by Tobias Wolff, 1992
The magic trick:
Reversing the standard father-son roles throughout the story before reversing them again by story’s end
The worst thing a father can do is, through his own childish actions, force his child into the role of the adult. OK, maybe that’s not the worst thing, but it certainly doesn’t qualify as good parenting. That’s the situation, though, we have here in “Powder,” as the narrator’s father fouls up Christmas Eve plans through his own inability to make smart, adult decisions.
But that’s not where Wolff leaves it. We’ve seen that slant on a father-son relationship before. Where this gets interesting is the way in which Wolff bends the relationship back toward hero worship. This isn’t a woe-is-me, my-dad-was-a-real-bum sketch at all. As it turns out, the narrator looks back on this Christmas Eve incident fondly with more than a little reverence for his dad. We are able to see both sides of the son’s feelings toward his father, making the relationship all the more realistic. And that’s quite a trick on Wolff’s part.
The trooper straightened up. His face was out of sight but I could hear him. “The road is closed.”
My father sat with both hands on the wheel, rubbing the wood with his thumbs. He looked at the barricade for a long time. He seemed to be trying to master the idea of it. Then he thanked the trooper, and with a weird, old-maidy show of caution turned the car around. “Your mother will never forgive me for this,” he said.
“We should have left before,” I said. “Doctor.”
He didn’t speak to me again until we were in a booth at the diner, waiting for our burgers. “She won’t forgive me,” he said. “Do you understand? Never.”
“I guess,” I said, but no guesswork was required; she wouldn’t forgive him.