In the ’70s, when Grace Paley was writing her tight-focus tales of motherhood and the seeming ordinariness of the day-to-day, their power lay in a strong subtext of domestic feminism. Her women weren’t the sum of their parts, and running hard under the surface of her stories was the need for a new way to define domesticity in a way that wasn’t reductionist or clichéd. Now, I’m not comparing anyone here. But Greg Olear’s new novel Fathermucker, in all its domestic, profane, droll glory, is also something of an undercover manifesto for, perhaps, new ways of framing parenthood. From the title to the outright call to taxonomic arms at the book’s finale, there’s a little something more here than meets the eye.
On the other hand, what meets the eye is entertaining all the way through and really, really funny.
Fathermucker is the saga of one day in the life of Josh Lansky, stay-at-home dad to two small children, and no, it’s not a good day at all. His wife, Stacy, has been in LA on business for five days, leaving him to contend single-handedly with 3-year-old Maude and Roland, a brilliant loose cannon of an almost-5-year-old. And while it’s not like he can’t take the pressure—he’s an attentive, caring dad and his kids clearly mean the world to him—as anyone who’s been responsible for small children for any stretch of time knows, they leave very little breathing room. And Josh has a lot on his mind: his deadlocked screenwriting career, his loving but lately sexless marriage, the remoteness of his former, fun life, Roland’s Asperger’s Syndrome, their mouse infestation. He’s the token daddy of the playdate circle in their comfortable, slightly crunchy town of New Paltz, New York, with a cohort of gossipy female buddies but no deep friendships. He’s just promised the editor of a hipster parenting magazine an interview with the town’s punk rock legend, Daryl “Duke” Reid—his only connection to the man being that their children are in the same pre-K class. And though he loves his kids fiercely, all it takes is being called “Mr. Mom” by his clueless, macho exterminator to send him off into waves of self-doubt and justification:
A few piddly decades of Women’s Studies programs, of CEOs in skirts, of Sandra Day O’Connor and Sally Ride and Sarah Palin, can’t undo a million years of rigid, inveterate gender dynamics. Money begets power, power begets sex appeal. No one wants to fuck Mr. Mom—not even Mrs. Mom. And yet, taken in strict biological terms, what is more manly than procreation? Animals fight to the death for the right to sire brood, to continue their bloodline. I have kids; Joe Palladino has bugs. Scoreboard, Joe. Scoreboard.
But it’s at that morning’s playdate that his day truly takes a nosedive. During a quick coffee interlude in the kitchen, one of the women confides to Josh that she thinks his wife is having an affair. This is no empty rumor; the town, in the way of small liberal towns everywhere, apparently, is a hotbed of sexual intrigue. And though they have the kind of marriage that everyone else claims to envy, he’s been feeling their lack of connection, exhausted as they are with two high-needs children.
The conversation is immediately terminated, though, by a head whacked on the coffee table and an ill-timed poop, and Josh is sent off with his thoughts whirling from denial to grim acceptance and back again. And all against the backdrop of a truly fraught day of parenting, in turns hilarious and heart-rending—in other words, business as usual.
That whirlwind of thought is the heart and soul of Fathermucker. Josh Lansky’s voice—slightly manic, snarky, amused and amusing and riffing on everything—perfectly captures the internal monologue that comes of spending almost every waking hour in the company of people under the age of five. It’s the endless conversation parents have with themselves because there’s no one else appropriate to have it with. Their minds, even if sleep-deprived, are as sharp as ever. But instead of a crowd of friends who’ll laugh and slap you on the back and crack you another beer, there’s only a cranky toddler who just wants you to just read the story, dammit. Why, for instance, wonders Josh—a man with a deep-seated mouse phobia—does every children’s story on earth feature them?
On the next few pages, the girl and her kid brother get into the groove of their day as the mouse goes through his bedtime routine, the latter falling asleep as the former are at their busiest. How exactly is it cute that this poor girl has a fucking mouse in her room? Are her parents unaware of steel wool and plaster of paris? I’m convinced that all these literary vermin are meant to make children more amenable to the inevitability of mousely cohabitation. Don’t be afraid of me! I’m cute! I’m cuddly! I’m just like you! As video games desensitize kids to violence, the Busy, Busy Mouse makes rodent infestation seem like a blast.
That Josh has something of a smutty mind and a potty mouth to match only adds to his general likability. He’s not only down-and-dirtily human, he’s a guy, and speaks of guy things. And if some of those things happen to include his dazzling skills with a baby wipe, or a comparative analysis of Bob the Builder, what of it? Show me an exhaustion-addled parent who hasn’t fantasized, at four in the morning, that they’re going for the gold in the DIAPER-CHANGING OLYMPICS, and I’ll show you someone who’s merely posing. There is a whole lot of inner chatter to parenting, and Olear nails it:
Why does raising your voice not work? Is it because they know that we’re full of shit, that the limit of our anger is an increase in volume and a reddening of the face? Carrot and stick doesn’t work so well to begin with, but when there’s no stick, and they know it, you’re kind of screwed.
No sticks, but here are carrots, in the form of chewable vitamins. I usually forget to dole out the vitamins—that’s more of Stacy’s purview—but the kids love them. They love them enough that, like dogs and puppy treats, the promise of a vitamin will generally compel them to roll over, play dead, give me paw. Like lollipops and dishes of ice cream, vitamins are the prison cigarettes of young childhood, the currency that buys favors.
One potential drawback is that the book is heavy on its references to early 21st-century cultural icons, which may or may not date it down the line. But I defend the medium here: In the same way that American Psycho has withstood the test of time because its brand-namedropping is specific to the story, so the barrage of pop culture in Fathermucker is completely appropriate. There is this deep need, once you find yourself measuring your life with sippy cups, for some kind of coolness-quotient validation. I think of my parents, New Yorkers who were in their day literate, academic, music lovers, cultural consumers. Surely they must have been hipsters of a kind? But I don’t—can’t—buy it. In my memory they’re suburban carpoolers, Johnny Carson-watchers: my parents, and by default deeply unhip. Now me, I was hip. And does my son buy that? Doubtful.
So Josh Lansky’s almost compulsive invocation of pop touchstones not only grounds the story in the moment, it gives voice to that particular yearning for currency: I know who the Damned were, but I know who Lady Gaga is as well (and I also know that the original Duke Reid was the Jamaican-born producer of classic ska and rock-steady tunes of the ’60s and ’70s on his Treasure Isle label—but I bet Josh knows that too, and just doesn’t want to rub our noses in it). The book is very much of its time, including 9/11 as part of the weave of everyday life, both in fact and metaphor: “I don’t want to be alone right now. I know the breakdown’s coming. The towers have been hit, but they haven’t collapsed yet. And collapse they will.”
Olear deftly layers that desperation—of having much on your mind and instead having to focus all your energies on small people who need you—with the humor, and mostly manages to pull back from outright slapstick in time (although there are a few bits that go on too long; just because they coincidentally share the same names as Josh and Stacy I really couldn’t muster much enthusiasm for the tabloid stories of Josh Duhamel and Fergie). And Josh’s musings on Roland’s Asperger’s—clear-eyed, sometimes frustrated, but just as often appreciative of the ways it makes his son brilliant and unique—keep the novel grounded. Still, I think this might be a book that wants a particularly parental audience. Which is not to say it’s Mommy Lit, but that there might be an additional level of appreciation that comes with identification. The lapses into Dr. Seuss-style rhyming might strike some as over the top, but I’m guessing any parent who’s been forced by a tiny tyrant to read The Cat in the Hat several hundred times in a row, and who’s then walked around with those cadences stuck in her head to a near-toxic degree, will laugh as much as I did.
Josh makes it through his Very Bad Day, gets his kids to sleep, and survives to do it all over again and even rant a bit. For all his self-indulgence, he’s a forward-thinking guy, and truly wishes there were a better paradigm than “Mr. Mom” to encompass his role in his children’s lives. He’s not Mr. Mom, just a man taking care of his kids, and the fact that he’s so fallible and such a good father at the same time is reassuring. Even more so, I think, is his vision for his son, and all the other kids in his class with IEPs and therapy as part of their preschool routine:
Is the autism spike another mutation, the next step in the Jaynesian evolution of consciousness? Whatever his social deficiencies, Roland has the potential to see the world in ways no one has before, and the raw brainpower to make something of what he sees…. I like to think of Roland’s condition as a blessing, a gift. When he’s in high school, he’ll kick ass in mathematics and science courses. He’ll ace his SATs. He’ll go to some brainiac college for engineering or physics or, if his current interests hold, architecture, and he will be well-compensated in his professional life. Will he have difficulties making friends? Most likely. But then, he won’t need them in the way Maude and the other neuro-typicals will. The truth is, I’m not worried about his future. I’m only worried about his present. If he can make it through kindergarten unscathed, the boy will be unstoppable. I firmly believe that.
Josh gets his talking points in, but it’s his chatter, his commentary on everything and nothing, that make Fathermucker so much fun. I hope the world is filled with fathers like him, wiping poopy butts and making mix CDs for their kids and wishing the local playground served Mai Tais. The world would indeed be a better place, whatever it is you want to call them.
This is part of a blog tour sponsored by HarperCollins and TLC Book Tours. Some more stops for this book can be found here:
Wednesday, October 5th: The Lost Entwife
Thursday, October 6th: Raging Bibliomania
Tuesday, October 11th: The 3 R’s: Reading, ’Riting, and Randomness
Wednesday, October 12th: Rundpinne