by Michael Rips,
Houghton Mifflin, 2005
Reviewed by Joseph J. Wydeven, Bellevue University
Many a man has written about his search for his father, but this book by fifth-generation Nebraska native Michael Rips is special for its bemusement, good humor, and quiet philosophical depth. Rips’s father was a strangely distant but kindly man who operated an optical factory, painted unexplained portraits of a naked black woman, and perpetually exhibited an “impenetrable calm,” even when dealing with his family.
The book is intriguing simply for its collection of anecdotes about life in Omaha. The protagonists are Rips’s parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts, and their friends—and some Omaha fixtures like political boss Tom Dennison, Mayor Jim Dahlman, Yvonne Kuntzel (the anxious proprietor of the Café de Paris), Richard Flamer (who hoped to find Weldon Kees alive in Omaha), and many others. Rips’s great grandparents owned the Miller Hotel, a place Rips discovers to be “the family brothel”—as one might expect, the subject of many a story.
Rips piles up his anecdotes and sketches extravagantly: a water-soaked body comes “squirting through the ceiling” of a restaurant; a plumber murders an insufferable customer, then “distributes” her body throughout her house; a tornado sucks Rips’s grandmother up a pantry chute; a friend falls out a second story window and lands safely upright in the snow below. Some stories stretch credibility, less because they violate reality than because they are more than twice-told, then subject to the author’s sometimes hilarious enhancements.
On one level this book is simply entertaining. On another it offers a meditation on the mysteries of identity. The bridge between the two levels is frequently found in philosophical commentary—for example, Rips’s interpretations of Emmanuel Levinas and classical stories cryptically told to him by his father. Levinas, Rips finds, is a philosopher of responsibility to human society—relevant to those who “led their tribes and were essential to their protection.” With Levinas in mind, readers recall those incidents in the book about people protecting others: Omaha mayor Edward Smith’s attempt in 1919 to save Will Brown from being lynched by offering himself to be hanged instead; more intimately, Rips’s father’s insistence on hiring women and blacks in his factory, or his intentions, during the race riots, in deliberately taking Michael to a restaurant in North Omaha, one of the few buildings not boarded up. His father, Rips movingly concludes, sought to see the social “other” and so found meaning by offering his protection.
Other reviewers have found similarities in The Face of a Naked Lady to Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio and Frank Conroy’s Stop-Time, but I think, too, of Nebraskan Wright Morris, whose father was distant in an entirely different way (see Will’s Boy) and with whom Rips shares an arresting interest in vision as a metaphor for consciousness. I was reminded also, if oddly, of W. G. Sebald (Austerlitz), whose sophisticated prose similarly cherishes buried mysteries.