Joel Agee, the son
At age 41, Agee had suffered the first of two heart attacks, the second of which would kill him when he was just forty-six, having recently completed his novel A Death in the Family before his death. Agee was contemptuous of moderation, insisting on living life recklessly, oblivious to the destructiveness his flagrant excesses had on others. The path he chose was strewn with failed marriages, thwarted promises, and irremedial losses – especially for his children. Perhaps Agee’s wife Alma intuited that the best course of action for their son Joel was to keep him as far from his father as possible. What Agee failed to imagine were all the ways the sins of a father could be visited upon his son.
James Agee, who wrote obsessively about fathers and fatherlessness, removed himself from the circumstances of his son’s life. At the end of her proverbial rope concerning her husband’s drinking and philandering, Alma, Joel’s mother, divorced Agee and moved with her son to Mexico where she married German Communist writer Bodo Uhse living in exile after having fought in the Spanish Civil War. In 1948, the family, including Joel’s half-brother, Stefan, left Mexico traveling by a Soviet freighter to the East German village of Gross-Glienicke. Alma and Joel lived behind the Iron Curtain for twelve years. Joel describes his recollections of that time in his memoir Twelve Years. One matter that becomes increasingly clear is that Joel came to regard Uhse as his father and not James Agee. Joel knew he had a father, who was also a writer, living in the United States, but maintaining the connection wasn’t a central concern for the youth, as his slightly fictionalized memoir attests:
Bruno was Pira’s father, but Pira had another father named David who lived in New York. David was his first father, and Bruno was his stepfather. Martha said Bruno was just as real a father to Pira as David was, and in a way more real, because David was far away and hadn’t seen Pira since he was a baby, except for a few weeks since he was four. (p. 32)
During a brief visit by Alma and Joel to New York, Agee convinced his ex-wife to let him see his son with the proviso Agee wouldn’t reveal his true identity. Joel, four at the time, never saw his father again, though Agee wrote a couple of times a year when the boy lived in Germany.
With so little exposure, it may seem surprising that father and son shared in common more than each could imagine. James lived the life of a writer to excess, his muse being drink. The adult Joel fell down the rabbit hole by another means, as the preface to his In the House of My Fear describes:
In the spring of 1964, Joel Agee, not quite at home in his native New York (having spent much of his boyhood and youth behind the Iron Curtain), accidentally ingests a sizeable dose of LSD. All at once, he is thrown from the precincts of bohemian normalcy into a whirl of bizarre synchronicities, symbols, and omens. Nothing is ever the same again. Thirty years later a sobered Joel Agee sets himself the task of recounting his adventures. He begins as a memoirist, but the truth he is seeking is not just that of memory. This book is a rescue mission – to find the ghosts of his past he must write his way into the house of his fear.
Those ghosts must certainly have included a lost father who’d lost a father of his own. Joel also stood to lose his brilliant, mentally ill younger brother Stefan teetering precariously, on a precipice high above looking at a psychic maelstrom below. Stefan’s deteriorating state was the impetus for a quest of epic dimensions, as the Goodreads synopsis of the book describes:
A small inheritance comes Joel’s way. Together with his wife and their infant daughter, he emigrates in search of kindred souls – a picaresque journey that takes him through Spain, England, Italy, Switzerland, and France. On the way, a fantastic project takes root in his imagination: to exorcise his brother’s madness by transforming his own consciousness, first with “acid,” then in a quest for enlightenment under the tutelage of spiritual teachers.
For some readers, Joel’s book accomplished what few thought possible: capturing the cultural Zeitgeist of the 1960s from within. For the reader, the task is not adjusting to his singularly elevated, urbane, Continental-influenced style. The difficulty lies in the book’s labyrinthine structure, shuffling readers from page to page and room to room as in a carnival fun house. It wouldn’t surprise me if Joel wrote the entire thing under the salutary influence of LSD. Agreeing to read In the House of My Fear is the price of admission for a transcendental magic carpet ride. I admit to finding the experience a bit disorienting.
To my thinking, what emerges from Joel Agee’s sprawling saga is that James Agee’s influence on his son was tangential at best. That’s not to say Joel isn’t proud of his father and his literary output. As Joel said in a New York Times interview in 1980:
I feel very close to his books, I like him very much as a writer. And since we’re both writers, even though we’re very different, being his son I feel that I have to be a very good writer. But that’s not a handicap; I find it a challenge.
At this writing, Joel Agee is eighty-two years old. He lives in New York City just as his father did all those years ago.