by Greg Olear
The moment one becomes a parent doesn't mean one's personality ceases to exist. We do not cease to be a person who wouldn't mind, from time to time, a break from parenting, to take a step back and say, "How exactly did I end up here?" Greg Olear understands this perfectly in his new novel, Fathermucker.
Living in the crunchy town of New Paltz, NY, Josh Lansky is a stay-at-home dad to 3 year old Maude and almost-5 year old Roland. He is, in short, very tired, especially now that his wife has left town on a business trip. Left in the wilds of solo parenting, there is a mouse living in his bedroom wall, he's been up since 5:03 am, and he can't remember the last time he wrote anything good. A little peace is necessary to start the day, and that peace will come from the Judgy-Mummy abhorred television. "I find myself apologizing for our decision to let our kids watch TV," he says. "If I permit such deleterious activity, you see, I must at least recognize its inherent and unequivocal evil."
The truth is, my kids could spent the next half hour watching the South Park movie, and I wouldn't mind, as long as I got to take a shower and they didn't memorize the words to "Shut Your Fucking Face, Uncle Fucker." If that makes me a shitty parent, well, alert Child Services. That's U-N-C-L-E-Fuck-You. The number's in the book.
I am with this dude. Even though I know my 4 year old son is exactly the type of kid to memorize the words to that song. Meanwhile, my 7 year old daughter would be the one judging me. She's a rule follower, for now, bless her. At least I got one. It's a wonderful day when your kids reach the age — whenever that is — when you can say, "Find something to do," and you don't have to worry about all hell breaking loose. You know, Mama's got things to do like post stupid cat pictures on Facebook. There's yogurt in the fridge. Clean up when you're done.
Speaking of Facebook, Josh uses it to keep up with the lives of his friends, and to finish the conversations started in real life during the perpetual playdate circuit. On this particular morning — for the whole of Fathermucker takes place during one very long day — he will attend a play date at Emma's mother's house. After that, he will accompany Roland on his preschool's field trip to the pumpkin patch. He will be caffeinated. He will persevere. He will conquer this damn day...
"Oh, Josh, I hate to be the one to tell you this. I think... I think she's having an affair."
The "she" being his wife, Stacy. Fellow parent Sharon, mother of Iris, drops this bombshell on Josh, just in time for Maude to have a meltdown, begging to go home. And so he gets to stew, without any further information, throughout a day that is only going to get worse.
Olear has a particular talent for capturing the scatterbrained state of parenting small children — the interrupted conversations, the strangeness of children's programming, the futility of fashion when all you're doing is wiping someone's ass. He knows it's easy to forget how to be a functioning social adult underneath all that. Playdates serve as necessary opportunities to have grownup conversation as much as they entertain the kids.
(Personally, I'm exhausted by the idea of playdates, but I'm exhausted by everything. In other news: it's a good thing my kids like each other, since their mother doesn't exactly provide a social calendar.)
In the case of the small-enough community of New Paltz, these meet-ups provide a side of gossip. Who's having an affair? (Cynthia Pardo, all over town.) Who is secretly eating McDonald's? (Josh, like, every morning.) Who puked all over the bathroom like a college kid? (Meg's husband, "the doucheface," she says.)
So yes, maybe that grownup conversation sometimes reverts to something a bit more, well, juvenile.
There are a bit too many pop culture asides peppering the story. Now, I understand that when your entertainment is derived from the quiet moments where you can steal away to the internet, or flip through gossip rags, pop culture asides are what will stick in your mind. Not to mention, a person who feels ever disconnected from the non-parenting world will cling to whatever cultural things that might show he is still paying attention. My life is not entirely pull-ups, honest. However, when we take that existence and pair it with literature, I start to wonder how well it will hold up over time. I know who the Fug Girls are and that Nick Jr. used to be called Noggin, but will the reader ten years from now know the same? Even the Spencer and Heidi jokes feel a bit old reading them in 2011 — though they were likely fresh when the book was written and presumably when this story is supposed to take place.
I know that worrying about the 2021 reader is an awfully presumptuous thing to do, but anyone who loves books, loves the business of writing them, and has read book after book that is decades (if not centuries) old... Well, of course we think about posterity. I understand why the not-quite-hip culture jokes are there, but there are too many. Josh can show me he's trying to be relevant in other ways.
Still, Josh is quite funny and he'd be the parent I'd want to hang out with, were I subject to such a social circle. I'd much rather talk about whatever silly crap is floating around online than things like attachment parenting and the latest martyr-parenting methods.
And the content can be serious as well. Josh's son, Roland, has Asperger's syndrome, and that affects everything during the day. Transitions must be forewarned, and bedtime must be a specific, orderly dance. Concessions must be made. That in itself can make a parent feel more alone, especially when it seems like "typical" kids develop in leaps and bounds.
Parents of autistic children are more likely to suffer from depression, from parental stress, from psychological stress.Fathermucker is a quick-but-satisfying read, and certainly one with which less-uptight parents will identify. The question of "Is Stacy having an affair?" propels us to the very end, and it goes for self-deprecation over melodramatics. Olear makes us consider the definitions of honesty and identity within our day-to-day life, and I am officially a fan.
Parents of autistic children are more likely to split up.
The divorce rate for those parents is eighty percent, is what I hear.
Ernest, one of Cynthia Pardo and Peter Berliner's three children, is autistic.
Stacy and I haven't had sex in … how long has it been? A while. It's been a while.
Full disclosure: Harper sent me this book. I thank them for the gesture, and I will continue to be fair in my reviews.
This review is part of Pajiba’s Cannonball Read III, in which participants attempt to read and review 52 books over the course of one year. In order to make up for last year’s 51 books, I’m aiming for 53. The challenge ends December 31, 2011.