Peter Dimock: A Short Rhetoric for Leaving the Family

Peter Dimock
A Short Rhetoric for Leaving the Family
Dalkey Archive Press

AH, FAMILY FEUDS. Nothing must warm a lawyer's heart quite so much as a family--especially a moneyed one--at bitter odds with itself. In Peter Dimock's first book, A Short Rhetoric for Leaving the Family, narrator Jarlath Lanham's estrangement from his kin is both bitter and odd. That's the opinion of Jarlath's clan, at least. From Jarlath's perspective, he's been a voice of sanity (despite his recent stint in the loony bin) in a family contaminated by too much money and too much power. After a certain family "incident," Jarlath has been ousted from the clan by his enraged brother and father, and leaves the East Coast to become a Midwesterner. This doesn't break his heart.

His only regret is that he's been legally barred from contacting his 12-year-old nephew, General, and his 10-year-old friend (who may be Jarlath's illegitimate son) Des, until the boys come of age. At that point, they will come into possession of both a small fortune and the contents of this book, which is structured as a letter of explanation and instruction to the boys. Through his lawyer, Jarlath intends to give them the financial means and information--his side of the story--to leave the family and break with the legacy of corruption they may otherwise inherit. If they wish.

The kindly uncle never outright condemns his relations or pressures the boys to flee the family--although, if they read carefully, they probably will want to do just that. Instead, he lays out an elegant family history pieced together with letters and anecdotes, although with few revelations: The boys, after all, should already know the Lanham dirt, and if Dimock's readers don't, well, we shouldn't--we're sneaking a peek at a document meant only for General's and Des's eyes. Some events, however, the boys would have been too young to understand, and so Jarlath takes the time to discuss his father's and brother Ag's roles as Defense Department personnel, in particular Father's decision-making role in devastating Vietnam during the war.

At times, A Short Rhetoric flickers with family memories of happier times, answering the kind of questions children often have about who their parents actually are. But beyond that, it's a clever resurrection of an increasingly forgotten writing and speaking methodology. Dimock's work stands beside Gary Wills's magnificent Lincoln at Gettysburg as a text with a subtext: to illuminate the gruesome details of history, as well as to instruct in the ancient art of rhetoric. To that end, Jarlath has organized his letter using rhetoric's classic forms: Invention, Arrangement, Style, and Delivery. Everything you need to start a family feud fits into these categories quite nicely. If only the players could all be this civil.

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