RM Johnson's extraordinary novel is a stirring family portrait that resonates with emotion and wit, as a father faces death—and the three sons he abandoned so many years before.
“Mr. Harris, I'm sorry, but you have cancer.” Although devastated to learn he has just one year to live, fifty-five-year-old Julius Harris has always known that the day would come when he would pay for walking out on his wife and three children twenty years earlier. Now, with a sudden and passionate determination to make his family whole again, Julius begins trying to find a way back to his sons.
Caleb, the youngest, struggling to support a son and make his way in a relentless world, couldn't care less about his own absentee father. Middle son Marcus can't abide even his father's memory, which gets in the way of his committing to the one woman who has turned his life around. And Austin, Julius' eldest child, so adores what he remembers of his father that he's following in his footsteps, abandoning his wife and children just as Julius had done.
Inspired by RM Johnson's own fragile family history, The Harris Men is his poignant exploration of the increasing problem of absentee fathers—and of the compromises made by the families they leave behind. As the Harris men grapple with their fears and their choices, Johnson gets to the very heart of what it means to be a man.
If situation tragedy were a television genre, Johnson's bittersweet and gently didactic first novel could be made into its flagship show. The three Harris boys--Austin, Marcus and Caleb--try with various success to live their adult lives as they daily contend with the repercussions of paternal abandonment and their mother's premature death. When Julius, their father in absentum, discovers he has 30 months left before cancer takes him, he decides to find the sons he hasn't seen since he left Chicago two decades ago. Austin, the eldest, who benefited most from Julius's time in the house, has become a lawyer: prosperous, emotionally withdrawn and suffering in the doldrums of a comfortable marriage and loving children. Marcus, the middle son, his mother's favorite, is a wary loner, a touch righteous and embittered that fate left him all alone to raise his younger brother, Caleb. For his part, Caleb carries on the legacy of precarious domestic arrangements. Self-hating and a self-designated black sheep, he struggles to support his girlfriend and to raise a young son. As we are introduced to the brothers Harris, Austin is leaving his young family; Marcus's fears about the pain implicit in intimacy are inhibiting him emotionally and Caleb, fleetingly buoyed by a job opportunity, is plunged again into desperation. Circumstances force the estranged brothers to reacquaint, and in this uneasy new relationship Julius finds them. His remorse, and the quickened neediness of his sons, brings these men closer than they have ever been. In unremarkable yet unfaltering prose, Johnson looks at the microcosm of one African-American family and in so doing bears sympathetic witness to the widespread American phenomenon of fatherless households and absent role models.