Books-My Fathers Heart


My Father’s Heart

Publisher: Da Capo Press
Pub. Date: February 1, 2008
ISBN: 9780738210971

A memoir of a father and son relationship cut short by heart attack, and the powerful pull of love across the empty years.

Sixteen-year-old Steve McKee watched his father die of a heart attack on the couch in their TV room. A lifelong smoker and workaholic, John McKee had been floored by a heart attack five years earlier. The McKee clan-perhaps including a demoralized John himself-had long been waiting for the other shoe to drop.

At age fifty-two, Steve McKee learned that he was his father’s son more than he had ever hoped-he, too, has serious cardiovascular disease. Haunted by his father’s seeming surrender to the condition, McKee set out to find the man who died before the son could know him. In so doing, what might he, Steve McKee, learn of himself?

Chronicling the disorienting first days following John McKee’s death, My Father’s Heart is an extraordinary story of an all-too-ordinary scenario: A father dies, a son remains, and the loss casts a long shadow across a generation. Rich in evocative detail of time, place, and family, it is a powerful memoir of love, forgiveness, and finding oneself.

For more information about Da Capo Press and “My Father’s Heart” please contact Lissa Warren, VP Senior Director of Publicity: or at 617-252-5212


From Chapter Nine:
“Tuesday, September 30; 10:21 p.m.”

Since Monday was my night to do the dishes, Mom likely cleaned up after dinner and then headed down to Schmitts. Perhaps I had some homework, but at 8:30 I was downstairs with Dad in the TV room. There was a new ABC Movie of the Week I wanted to watch that looked good. It was called The Immortal. A man discovers, after donating blood, that he is immune to all disease, and the billionaire who gets saved by a transfusion then tries to turn him into his own private blood bank. This guy is a test-car driver, and at the end he makes his escape in a green Mustang. Neat.

I wanted to see it because it starred Christopher George, who a couple of years before had been in The Rat Patrol, a very cool World War II series about four soldiers running their jeeps up and down sand dunes while battling Rommel in North Africa. George wore an Australian hat, the brim on the left side pinned up jauntily. But one of the other soldiers wore what looked like a Civil War infantry hat with his goggles perched on top. To this day I like that look—sunglasses pushed out of the way over the brim of a baseball cap. In The Immortal, Dad was pleased to see Barry Sullivan, hollow cheeks and all, as the bad guy. Sullivan had been in one of Dad’s favorite TV westerns, The Tall Man, as the sheriff Pat Garrett.

Dad’s all-time TV Western, though, was probably Have Gun—Will Travel, with Richard Boone as Paladin. He was by turns a Shakespeare-quoting, card-playing San Francisco swell or a black-clad bounty hunter with a white knight insignia on his holster and a highly developed, quirky sense of right and wrong. I have glommed that description from various Internet sites, but I remember clearly the appeal this character held for Dad…

The Immortal done, Dad and I moved right into Marcus Welby, M.D. A brand new series in just its second show, it had been last week’s number one and was on the cover of TV GUIDE. Dad went up to the kitchen, and when he came back I filled him in: some parents had a kid with mental problems, and they didn’t know what to do.

I heard it before I saw it. The sound of air being pulled through tightly clenched teeth. By the time I turned to look at him, I’d heard it twice. Dad’s eyes were wide open, his brows pushed up onto his forehead, his lips pulled wide across his mouth in a leering, maniacal grin. He looked like the pictures I’d seen of the astronauts’ faces on the rocket sled, their faces yanked back by the G-force. With every gasp his back slammed into the couch and stayed there, stuck to it, as if there were someone or something behind the couch holding on to him. Then suddenly the gasp would stop, and for a split second time stood still, until the hand behind the couch pushed him forward violently, only to grab him and pull him right back when the gasping started again. And there would be this thumping noise, like a fist was hitting him in the chest. He was so straight and stiff against the sofa it was like he had a metal rod jammed down his spine, right through his head.

By now I was standing over him. I had leapt up before the third gasp. I yelled at him—“Dad! Dad! Dad!”—but he was hearing nothing. I wanted to put a hand on his shoulder, to keep him from lunging again, but I was afraid to touch him. In the moment between the gasp and the next pitch forward and all the thumping I could see right into his eyes, but there was nothing there. No life. No terror. Nothing.

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Publishers Weekly
Nonfiction Reviews: Week of 12/3/2007
My Father’s Heart: A Son’s Journey
Steve McKee.
Da Capo Lifelong, $25 (256p)
ISBN 978-0-7382-1097-1
At the age of 16, Wall Street Journal editor McKee (The Call of the Game) watched his 50-year-old father, John, drop dead of a massive heart attack. In this affecting memoir, he uses the trauma as a lens through which to view his family history. Early cardiac arrest was a hereditary constant for McKee’s male relatives and an occupational hazard for postwar breadwinners like John, a World War II vet who smoked three packs a day, had a sedentary but hellishly stressful middle-management job and endured his first heart attack at age 44. McKee pens an homage to his father’s way of life, with its dutifulness and web of family and community ties, but also a critique of its toll. Reacting against his father’s apparent surrender, the author turns his life into a rebellion against the inevitability of heart attack. He eschewed a workaholic career for the creative life and maintained a fanatical fitness regimen—running, rowing, triathlons, all manner of health food diets and nutritional supplements—only to learn in middle age that cardiovascular disease had caught up with him. McKee includes illuminating medical lore about heart attacks and oral histories from survivors. But most of all, he discovers in the most ordinary way to die a perspective on how to live. (Feb. 1)

At 55, Wall Street Journal editor McKee has decided to turn his journalist’s natural inquisitiveness inward, chronicling the life of his father, who was felled by a heart attack when the author was just 16. It’s a tender tale that manages to nicely portray family life of a certain time and place – mostly the 1960s in Pennsylvania and Western New York – despite the sad knowledge of his father’s fate at the outset.

Kirkus Reviews
December 15, 2007
McKee, Steve
MY FATHER’S HEART: A Son’s Journey
    Nearly four decades after the fact, Wall Street Journal copy editor McKee (The Call of the Game, 1987) tries to come to terms with his father’s death and his own mortality.
    On September 30, 1969, the 16-year-old author watched his 50-year-old father die suddenly of a heart attack. More than 35 years later, McKee discovered that he too had a less-than-healthy heart and became obsessed with learning everything he could about cardiac disease. Part of his journey involved resurrecting a piece he’d written in college about his father’s death and expanding it into a book. The resultant memoir, which features reminiscences of high-school days, stories about his love of sports and a multitude of information about heart disease, was clearly cathartic and therapeutic for the author, so that readers can’t help but root for him to make it through the story both wiser and healthier. In substantial portions of the text, McKee takes a journalistic approach, offering specific details (dates, addresses, heart disease-related statistics, etc.) in such a smooth manner that the numbers seem to be a natural part of the narrative. There are also plenty of weepy moments, which don’t hurt the narrative since the book would have suffered had he kept more distance. The nonlinear structure allows for the author to jump from topic to topic, including a section of people describing their heart attacks, in-depth descriptions of professional football games past and other loosely related material. Those who suffer from heart disease will undoubtedly find solace in the fact that they’re far from alone. However, this earnest endeavor doesn’t have quite the literary resonance one might have hoped.
    A rambling homage to love, perseverance and the pursuit of longevity: touching but a bit treacly.

Booklist Online
David Pitt
When he was 16 years old, the author saw his father die, struck down by a heart attack. It was John McKee’s second heart attack in five years. He was barely 50 years old when he died. Years later, in his early 50s, the author realized he was going down the same path, toward an early death. He decided to learn all he could about his father, to find out why the man had steadfastly ignored the plentiful signs that he was killing himself; in the process, as is customary in confessional autobiographies, the author learned a whole lot of unexpected things about himself. The story has many dramatic, emotional moments, but it’s hard to shake the feeling that we’ve heard this story many times before. McKee is a good, precise writer, and his account of life with (and without) his father is undeniably touching even though it fails to separate itself from a very crowded field.


March 20, 2008
My Father’s Heart: A Son’s Journey. By Steve McKee. Da Capo. $25.
A Chant to Soothe Wild Elephants: A Memoir. By Jaed Coffin. Da Capo. $16.
      These highly personal, sensitively told memoirs offer, on the one hand, a cautionary tale for the Western world and, on the other, a glimpse inside the Far East. Steve’s McKee’s My Father’s Heart is the story of his father’s death from a heart attack at age 50, and the inward and external journeys on which McKee went as a result. Part of what McKee does is ask doctors exactly what killed his father – and he gets, not surprisingly, a variety of analyses from people who, after all, never met the man and have no patient-pertinent information on which to base a firm diagnosis. But really, there is no mystery in what happened, even if a precise diagnosis (right or left coronary artery?) is elusive. There is a genetic predisposition to heart attack, and McKee’s father’s father had himself died of one – at age 53. McKee’s father smoked, ate poorly and avoided exercise – and even when he had a first heart attack, six years before the fatal one, he did not change his habits. Medical precision aside, what happened it clear enough. So what carries My Father’s Heart is not a mystery at its, well, heart, but the oral histories of heart-attack survivors, the emotional and physical responses of McKee himself in the wake of his father’s death, and the coolly presented (if scarcely new) research on heart disease. Of special if limited interest is the portrait of a city through multiple generations – specifically Buffalo, New York, but it could be any old industrial city in the frigid Rust Belt. The book does drift, as is not surprising given the numerous approaches of McKee and the variety of angles he takes on heart disease and the people who died from (or survived) it. But the style carries the story, often in asides that neatly encapsulate one element of life or another: “High school musicals are a boiling cauldron of out-of-control teen angst, teen hormones, teen frenzy. …Marry this vulnerability to a burgeoning confidence, put this sudden sense of a vibrating self in a back-stage area that’s too dark and filled with too many hidden corners for the adults to keep track of, and you have, quite simply, entered make-out heaven.” My Father’s Heart is often touching and even more often meandering – it will most attract readers interested in a well-presented tale of everyday events and ordinary history.
posted by The Infodad Team @ 08:42

(Agent: Jeff Kleinman/Folio Literary Management)