The Book of Dads
Edited by Ben George
Harper Perennial, 304 pp.
It seems appropriate that both The Book of Dads and Father's Day arrive at the onset of summer, when dads and kids head for the shore. A handful of these 20 essays take place on the water—a couple of them even go frighteningly under—and an aquatic vacation might be the best time to give your favorite father this enlightened, enlightening book, edited by University of North Carolina-Wilmington professor Ben George.
Seafaring has much in common with fatherhood: dangers and depths, a sense of exploration and mission, accomplishment and reward, a specialized vocabulary, sleepless vigilance and occasional extreme panic. More than a few of the literary sailors in The Book of Dads chart courses for the reader in the form of numbered lists—the most instructive (and funniest) in an essay by North Carolina's Clyde Edgerton. In "The Job, By the Numbers," Edgerton gives more useful counsel in just 12 pages than you sometimes find in entire guidebooks devoted to parenting.
Moreover, the subject of fatherhood intensifies Edgerton's writing. He not only gets his laughs, but also opens an eye (and nose) to the dark stuff: "If the birth is by C-section ... you will be standing beside your wife's head—which is poking through a hanging green sheet—and she will be smiling the whole time, in spite of the burning smell from the searing of cut blood vessels in her stomach."
Indeed, The Book of Dads elicits pungent prose from nearly all of its contributors. A few of the essays get a bit overheated or sentimental (don't try reading more than three at a sitting), but given the subject, that can be forgiven. The pieces whipsaw between comedy and angst, wonder and worry.
The book establishes its tone with Ben Fountain's leadoff essay, "The Night Shift." Fountain addresses the ceaseless, bone-aching fatigue of parenting, the constant anxiety and how it "force[s] us out of ourselves" while also demanding that we make "ultimate choices" about our own lives: Fountain quits his humdrum job and its comfortable salary so he can stay home and write. The change allows him to watch his kids closely and daily, but his new, self-actualized life as a writer gives him more than mere proximity to his children—it's also a sort of prophylactic against future resentment: "To the extent that we compromise, fudge, live falsely, [our children] feel it as surely as the weather [...], and sooner or later they'll dish it back to us in spades."
That last observation is a reminder that dads are also sons, and part of the project of fatherhood is to right whatever wrongs may have been committed a generation earlier. It's no surprise that a number of these essays are about the authors' own fathers, which places the book exactly amidships: You get a view backward and forward.
That perspective reaches its clearest and highest point in the very last essay, Sven Birkerts' superbly composed, elegantly modulated "Points of Sail." A simple, fleeting moment of observation puts Birkerts in a near-mystical state of "the frailest and most temporary alignment [...] exactly in the middle—of the afternoon, of the summer, of an actuarial life, of the great generational cycle." Having captured this moment in his writerly net, he does what any veteran dad must do: He gets up, heads inside and goes to work.