“Furthering My Education: A Memoir” by William Corbett ($21.95, Zoland Books, 209 pp.)
On a Thursday morning in 1965, Dr. William Corbett posted a note on his office door. “I have gone to further my education,” it said. Within two days, the 50-year-old physician was winging his way toward Baghdad, leaving behind his wife, two sons, and a slew of unsettled accounts.
“Furthering My Education” is the story of William Corbett Jr.’s anguished efforts to come to terms with his father’s absence - before and after that departure. Written by an eminent Boston poet, it is a sad, unsettling account of a child’s quest for his father’s love.
“Big Bill” Corbett was in many ways an American success story. A son of Hungarian immigrants, he breezed through college and medical school. He married a vivacious woman who, according to her son, “never doubted the absolute truth” of the blurb beside her picture in her college yearbook: “stylish as next month’s Vogue, changeable as the weather, funny as Disney at his best.” After serving as a medic in the South Pacific during World War II, Corbett settled with his wife and 4-year-old namesake in suburbanizing Trumbull, Conn., where he hung his shingle.
Corbett’s practice flourished in the ‘50s, and he and his wife savored their newly won creature comforts and symbols of success. The doctor did business in cash only, a practice that gave him the pleasure of publicly peeling $1,000 bills from a wad he kept in his wallet. His wife strolled the aisles of the local supermarket wearing a diamond ring, a “mink coat over a tight pair of crimson toreador pants and a tight cashmere sweater with a mink collar and rhinestone buttons.” It was her idea of class, recalls her son.
The father’s disappearance is the focal point for the son’s memoir. But “Furthering My Education” is a book of many stories. Author Corbett skillfully evokes his bizarre family history from evolving viewpoints: a bewildered boy who couldn’t “connect”; the rebellious youth beguiled by his enigmatic father; a grown man who gradually realizes that both his parents betrayed him. The writer’s ultimate discovery of where his father’s travels took him is but one strand in this very knotty tale.
Corbett is honest and candid about his past, including the roles he’s played in shaping his family saga. As a boy, suffering from his father’s remoteness, he served as soulmate and sounding board to his self-centered, eccentric mother - an ally in her angry outbursts at his father. Unwittingly, he says, he became a source of irritation and embarrassment to his thin-skinned father.
Corbett describes his adolescent self as a loudmouth; a self-conscious, insecure contrarian who devoured books but floundered in school. He disappointed his parents and disliked himself. After his father left, his uneasy alliance with his mother came to an end. Both experiences left him seething with anger and frustration for years.
Corbett has told many versions of his family story. He’s regaled friends with amusing monologues about the man who went to Baghdad. Tried and failed to publish what he thought of as his father’s emblematic American tale.
Novelized his experience of “A Boy and His Dad.” Written poems.
“Furthering My Education” reaps rewards from each of those efforts. The author uses black humor to enliven a dark, disturbing family portrait. He sets his story comfortably in the context of Cold War America without turning it into a social history. Although Corbett’s narrative is at points burdened by too much detail, his prose is carefully crafted. As a chronicle of a man who comes to grips with a painful past - furthering his own education - the book is most compelling.
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