Associated Press Modified: January 27, 2011 at 5:04 pm •  Published: January 27, 2011

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Ronald Reagan, the politician, has been enshrined as a heroic visionary by the right, celebrated for ending the Cold War and reducing the size of government, and invoked as a touchstone for all things conservative. At the same time, he's been caricatured by the left as the dunderheaded godfather of a red-state America, promoting lower taxes for the rich, higher deficits and a more fragile social safety net.

Ronald Reagan, the man, has meanwhile eluded capture, described over the years in an assortment of metaphors and images that make him out to be more symbol than human being: "the perfect Scout," a "Doctor Feelgood" and an "amiable dunce." His official biographer, Edmund Morris, was so perplexed by his subject's opacity and contradictions that he abandoned his efforts to write a serious work of history and instead produced "Dutch" (Random House, 1999), a cringe-making hodgepodge of fact and fiction, narrated by an imaginary alter ego.

Now, on the occasion of what would have been the former president's 100th birthday, his youngest son, Ron Reagan, has written a deeply felt memoir — a memoir that underscores the bafflement his own children often felt about their father, a man the younger Reagan describes as an inscrutable, "paradoxical character," ''warm yet remote," ''affable as they come" but with "virtually no close friends besides his wife," a man who "thrived on public display yet remained intensely private."

''His children, if they were being honest," Reagan writes in "My Father at 100," ''would agree that he was as strange a fellow as any of us had ever met. Not darkly strange, mind you. In fact, he was so naturally sunny, so utterly without guile, so devoid of cynicism or pettiness as to create for himself a whole new category of strangeness. He was, in some respects, too good — like a visitor from an enchanted realm where they'd never even consider inventing a Double Down sandwich or credit default swaps. I often felt I had to check my natural sarcasm and sense of absurdity at the door for fear of inducing in him a fit of psychological disequilibrium."

Though the younger Reagan — an avowed atheist with decidedly liberal leanings — would have philosophical arguments with his father over the years, their difficulties had nothing to do with politics but with emotional connection. The author says he never felt that his father didn't love or care for him but that he often seemed to be "wandering somewhere in his own head."

''Occasionally," Reagan writes, "he seemed to need reminding about basic aspects of my life — like birthdays, who my friends were or how I was doing in school. I could share an hour of warm camaraderie with Dad, then once I'd walked out the door, get the uncanny feeling I'd disappeared into the wings of his mind's stage, like a character no longer necessary to the ongoing story line."

This suspicion that he was not central to his father's daily existence, that his father's inner life was both elusive and impregnable lends a wistful tone to the memoir. Ron Reagan, who writes in charming, lucid prose, clearly wants to try to know his father, and his travels to the small Midwestern towns where his dad grew up become a Telemachus-like search for understanding as he deconstructs the former president's earliest dreams and ambitions and his relationships with his parents, his brother and his classmates. These chapters of the book have the emotional detail and heartfelt power of recent classics of filial devotion like Martin Amis' "Experience" and Philip Roth's "Patrimony."They are testaments both to the author's deep, protective love for his father and to his puzzlement over his father's deeply solitary nature and frequent obliviousness to people around him.

Unfortunately for the reader, the later chapters in the book are considerably more cursory, hopping and skipping oddly through Ronald Reagan's adult life, as if running out of time or space. Reagan discusses how his father's dreams of glory and valor were shaped by the movies — especially by westerns featuring "a lone hero saving the day" — but he spends very little time examining his father's time in Hollywood and how his experiences there informed his gifts as a politician. He is similarly casual about his father's tenure as governor of California and as president, giving us a handful of personal anecdotes but appreciably little insight into how Ronald Reagan's political thinking evolved or how his time in office shaped or reshaped his apprehension of the world.