A good book should blindside you. If it's doing its job, a book ought to be unpredictable. As you're reading along, minding your own business, something needs to come zinging in from left field or dropping straight out of the sky, landing in your lap.
Sorry about that spilled coffee.
I don't mean that I yearn for zombies to interrupt "Moby Dick" or that, instead of parting forever, I want Daisy and Jay Gatsby to reunite later via Facebook. (Turns out it was just a flesh wound and he was able to drag himself, shaking and sputtering, from the pool.)
I'm talking about emotional surprises, about small shifts of tone and perspective that remind us that readers should always stay on their toes.
That's what happens in "My Father at 100" (Viking), Ron Reagan's early valentine to his late father. A chronicle of the author's search for Ronald Wilson Reagan's Midwestern roots, in honor of the centennial of the president's birth Feb. 6, 1911, the new book is just what you'd expect it to be: heartfelt, witty, suffused with the golden light of reminiscence.
The author travels to Tampico, Ill., and nearby spots, tracing his famous father's rise from a grim childhood to wealth and fame in Hollywood and Washington, D.C. But then, just when you've settled into the rhythm of this pleasant, earnest and inspiring story, Ron Reagan comes up with a passage bound to startle: not because it's rude or mean, but because it's so casually, effortlessly beautiful.
He describes his father in the pool: "Dad had one of the most graceful and efficient swimming strokes I've seen this side of Mark Spitz. ... The instant his fingertips left the water, his recovering arm, instead of describing a circuitous arc on its way back to slapping the surface, would lance forward like a rattlesnake's strike, knifing into the water at a shallow angle and pulling Dad's body along with it. There was very little splash."
Many memoirs have been written by children about their parents, but rarely do they depict, with such crisp economy, the experience of watching a parent's particular motion, through water, in this case, and across space and time.
Unfortunately, "My Father at 100" is getting attention for a reason other than its prose. Michael Reagan, the author's half-brother, has expressed public outrage at Ron Reagan's suggestion that Reagan may already have been exhibiting symptoms of Alzheimer's before he left office.
The furor is puzzling. For one thing, the author isn't claiming that anyone in the White House knew it and orchestrated a coverup. For another, it's just a guess, based on Ron Reagan's sporadic visits.
"I've seen no evidence," the author writes, "that my father (or anyone else) was aware of his medical condition while he was in office."
Still, if the controversy brings readers to "My Father at 100," that's a good thing; this is a fine, eloquent story, one that sheds light on America in the early days of the 20th century, a time when, for many people, life was "not all berries and cream," as my mother likes to describe less than ideal circumstances.
To demonstrate how debased our culture has become, the author contrasts it with his father's purity: "He was, in some respects, too good, like a visitor from an enchanted realm where they'd never even consider inventing a Double Down sandwich or credit default swaps."
That's a lot of scorn to heap on a couple of chicken patties.
Mostly, though, "My Father at 100" is a nicely written, richly felt book.
No matter what you think of Reagan's politics -- or Ron Reagan's, for that matter -- you will find something to savor in this account, something upon which to reflect, something that surprises or delights you. And maybe it will help you remember how your mother or father caught a ground ball or cast a fishing line into a clear lake.
Maybe you disagreed with that parent's worldview -- as Ron Reagan certainly did with his father's -- and maybe, for you as for the author, that ends up not mattering so much, after all.