'Cocaine's Son' doesn't have enough highs

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COCAINE'S SON, by Dave Itzkoff. Villard, 221 pp., $24.

The best memoirs read like novels, so well-crafted that they transform life into art, people into characters, the author into a narrator. They do this not by lying, but through the alchemy of storytelling. Lesser memoirs feel more like journalism: they may be absorbing and well-written, but there's no liftoff.

"Cocaine's Son" is both kinds. Dave Itzkoff, a New York Times culture reporter and the author of a previous memoir, "Lads," occasionally makes the story of his relationship with his father, a fur salesman and cocaine addict, into something timeless. The first sentence - "He was such an elusive and transient figure that for the first eight years of my life I seem to have believed my father was the product of my imagination" - is a close echo of this famous first line: "She was so deeply imbedded in my consciousness that for the first year of school I seem to have believed that each of my teachers was my mother in disguise." That's Philip Roth, opening "Portnoy's Complaint." The Portnoy echo - the not completely likable yet vivid, outrageous and darkly comic Jewish voice - is the book's strength.

When this type of storytelling is at work - as in the section titled "How We Argue in My Family," which traces a classic Itzkoff contretemps through its many phases (The Recitation of Grievances, The Queen's Gambit, The Invocation of the Immutable Past and the Turnover on Downs) - the magic happens.

But much of the time, the story is mundanely and confusingly told. Before he was born, Itzkoff's parents were carefree partyers - their "Martin Scorsese years." Dad and his friends did a little coke, but nothing extreme. By the time the author was growing up in New City, N.Y., in the '80s and '90s, Itzkoff Sr. was always either high, depressed or absent; Mom was the patient martyr keeping things together. As a young adult, Itzkoff dragged his father out of flophouses and watched him snort coke out of his shirt pocket at family events. Finally, though Itzkoff doesn't seem to know exactly when, Dad got clean.

Midway, the memoir switches tacks, recounting the author's recent attempts to reconcile with his father (and to write this book). They go on various trips to unearth the past: from the fur market in Toronto to the pelt traders in New Orleans. The stories are weakened by being told out of sequence and within the travelogue frame.

More crucially, Itzkoff's father never makes the leap to become a successful antihero. If you have a character who bores everyone by telling the same story over and over, it had better be hilarious, not actually boring.

The final chapter of the book regales us with the story of the author's wedding, which he describes as the day that "reorders the narrative of his life] . . . the crucial chapter that unlocks all the others." Suddenly he is grateful for everything that has happened - the anxiety, the selfishness, the fights and the injustice. Maybe so, but it seems a happy ending grafted onto an imperfectly rendered and unresolved story.

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