The Short Version: Josh Lansky is a stay-at-home dad in a town outside of New York City. He has two young children, a flailing screenwriting career, and a wife who – he’s just found out – may be cheating on him. This is his Friday, from top to bottom. Parenting kind of sucks.
The Review: First off, a major thank you to the lovely people at Harper Perennial for sending me an advance copy to review. I’ve been looking forward to this book since I managed to win a copy of Mr. Olear’s first novel, Totally Killer, right around when I started this blog. I thought that book was flawed but showed some real promise. Although I wasn’t originally convinced by the early blurb on this book – it seemed like a fatherhood memoir at first blush – I was excited for it nonetheless. My excitement grew when I discovered that it was not a fatherhood memoir but rather a book about a father. A stay-at-home dad.
My dad was a stay-at-home dad. Sort of. He was the one who mostly took us to playdates, did the carpool, etc etc. He was Mr. Mom, just like Josh in this book. My dad was a trendsetter, for sure – this book wouldn’t’ve been possible without guys like my dad saying “hey, it’s okay to be a parent” instead of being those traditional fathers. Fuck tradition.
So I knew this book would sit well with me. A long time from now, when I have kids, I wouldn’t mind being a father like my dad – or like Josh. I’m not opposed to it… but I’m also terrified of it. I mean, what 23 year old male isn’t terrified of fatherhood (perhaps more accurately unintended fatherhood, but I digress…) and whatnot? For some reason, in the last six months or so, I’ve come to realize what exactly parenthood is: it’s giving up the life you’ve created to spend every waking moment tending to a creature that is somehow made of you and so you feel innately that you must do whatever it needs. Couple this with last week’s Doctor Who and we’re off. (I will say, I do hope my kid calls himself Stormageddon. Anyway.)
This book highlights every single one of my fears in vivid relief. If anything, I am even more terrified of being a father. Wondering if I’m too selfish – not wanting to give up my sex life – mostly wondering how little reading I’ll be able to get done when my kids are, well, kids. Because Josh does not seem to be having all that great of a go at it. The passages discussing the differences between East Village life and life outside of New York are particularly uncomfortable… because I’m starting to wonder when, exactly, I’ll be able to leave this city. Sure, Boston is the eventual plan for me… but will there be an intervening stop before that point? I honestly don’t know. Why would you want to leave this place?
Anyway, digressing again. Back to the book. The writing is smart and stocked with the right dose of reality: it never feels too uncomfortably real but at the same time it is most definitely real. This is what kids are like. I read these words and think “my god, this is the nitty gritty, this is the real deal.” I also want to applaud Olear’s choice to give the son Asperger’s. Sure, that’s the ‘hip’ disease right now (thanks to Lisbeth Salander) but really I’ve never seen it portrayed so… coherently. This is not a quirk or defining trait – this is simply how Roland is. The challenge of not only raising a child but raising a child with a ‘learning disability’ is played out so realistically here… I felt Josh’s struggle the whole time. It never seemed fake, it never seemed put-on, it never seemed too easy. It was the real thing.
What did feel put-on about the book is the same damn problem I had with Olear’s last book: the pop-culture references. Where Totally Killer was basically non-stop 90s references, Fathermucker is just about as heavy-handed with the present day (well, let’s say pre-2010 midterms) references. I mean, give me a breather! It was relentless and served little purpose other than to aggravate me. It’s like people who constantly misuse a word or consistently use the same figure of speech… and you start counting how often they do it. I know a guy who says “literally” at least fifteen times a day. To most people, it slips by… but these things bother me. Oh how they bother me. Every time there was an unnecessary pop culture reference – to this band or this media figure (god, Heidi Montag? I mean… really?) or that show or that movie – I was yanked out of the book because of the encyclopedic feeling. We get it, Greg – you’re hip. Stop relying on cultural touchstones and just write – you’re a very talented author and you don’t need the crutch. Although some of the references are spot-on and perfectly deployed. It’s just that they’re swamped by the unnecessary references.
Anyway, the book itself is an interesting twist on the domestic unrest plot. It’s a bit Desperate Housewives (sorry) at times, with all the sexual escapades happening between the adults in this town, but I appreciated the dedication to it being just this one day. We aren’t here to find out about the long-term story behind these people. These lives are interesting enough that we’re curious about them… but not interesting enough that we actually want to hear more about them. Instead, we get to skim this universe like a stone across a pond, catching just enough information that we’re engaged before moving along. The big question of the novel – did Stacy cheat? – is an interesting one and the way Josh keeps turning to the potential scenarios was enjoyable (loved the little script inserts) but I sort of predicted what was going to happen. I didn’t know how it would turn out, but I predicted most of the salient points along the way… which isn’t a pat-myself-on-the-back “woohoo!” kind of thing, nor is it a “that sucks!” kind of thing. I’m just saying that I found the plot, at the end of the day, relatively middle of the road.
Rating: 4 out of 5. I’m happy to see that Olear’s writing has matured a bit – and he tackles a number of easily messed-up subjects with aplomb and deft touches of realistic… well, realism. Josh felt like a real dad to me – someone who I can’t quite associate with just yet but also someone who I’m suddenly coming to have a lot more understanding for. It’s also a great cautionary tale for any young folks who were considering having a kid. I’m so even further convinced that I’ll be fine waiting out my 20s before procreating, thank you very much. Now, for his third book, let’s see if Olear can tone down the incessant pop culture references. Set up the time… and then let it go, sit. Let it go. Do that and I think we could see a very talented and observant writer finally break onto the scene.