Genre memoirs stink. I don’t mean the books themselves. Plenty of them do stink, surely, just like any other kind of book. But some of them are great. The past decade has seen successful memoirs mined from war, Anthony Swofford’s Jarhead; celebrity: Keith Richard’s Life; addiction: Mary Karr’s Lit; and cancer: Joshua Cody’s [Sic]—to name a few. My gripe is more general: The fact that memoirs are so often written and edited and marketed with the idea of fitting into a genre does a disservice to readers, writers, and writing.
Two new books attest: Drew Magary’s Someone Could Get Hurt: A Memoir of Twenty-first Century Parenthood and John T. Price’s Daddy Long Legs: The Natural Education of a Father. Both have lots of good qualities. Sharp prose; funny, as well as moving passages; effective, well-constructed chapters. Neither is unpleasant to read. But they both drag in parts, and suffer for the feeling of being crammed into a box that they don’t quite naturally fit: the fatherhood memoir, a genre that stretches back at least to Bill Cosby’s 1987 bestseller, Fatherhood, and has seen a revival of late—Neal Pollack’s Alternadad, David Sheff’s Beautiful Boy, Buzz Bissinger’s Father’s Day, Jim Gaffigan’s Dad Is Fat, Adrian Kulp’s Dad or Alive. The mini boom seems in line with the demographic shift toward more stay-at-home dads and like an emulation of society’s ubiquitous and highly profitable “mommy culture.” (See the “Dudes Club” in last year’s ensemble comedy What to Expect When You’re Expecting and Kindling Quarterly, a new magazine about fatherhood that does not, despite what the title might suggest, advocate setting children on fire.)
While most genre memoirs seek to explain a specific and unique experience, shared by some but not by many, the fatherhood memoir is a study of a common phenomenon. And there’s a too frequent problem with studies of this common experience. It has to do with a thing that lots of people learn when they have a kid and so find themselves sitting around with other parents talking about their kids a lot: No one is ever going to think the way your kid mispronounces words when he or she is learning to talk is as cute as you think it is. (No one except the kid’s grandparents.) So when Magary repeatedly quotes his son saying “oat-kay” instead of “okay” (“Deddy, are woo oat-kay?”) and when Price, throughout the book, has his sons refer to each other as “brudda” (“It’s OK, Big Brudda is here!”), it’s like listening to the parents on the next table over at Chuck E. Cheese’s coo babytalk and pet names at children you don’t know. Such pitfalls makes an author’s job harder—the more mundane a story a book tells, the more exceptional the telling must be. Magary endured the premature birth of a child, and a serious health crisis that followed. But neither he nor Price can claim access to parental experience that falls very far outside of the norm.
A correspondent for GQ and columnist for Deadspin and Gawker, Magary is a charming, breezy writer with an enjoyable gift for vulgarity (recently evidenced in his administration of Deadspin’s sublimely ridiculous “Swear Word Bracket.”) He takes a down-to-earth, pragmatic approach to parenting, and he seems like he’d be a nice guy to share a beer or chat with at the playground with. But the simple clarity of his prose is well suited for reporting harrowing moments, too. His third child, a son, was born seven weeks early with a potentially fatal condition known as intestinal malrotation. An account of emergency surgery and a 27-day stay in NICU opens and closes the book and gives it much of its emotional heft. A doctor had told him that “the survival rate was zero” if the boy’s intestines proved unsalvageable. “Do they euthanize your child?” he wonders. “Do they just leave him until he starves to death because he can’t fully digest anything? They can’t do that. The world couldn’t possibly be that cruel, could it?”
But that only makes up 30 pages. The book is less compelling through the middle, when Magary tackles more mundane aspects of parenting. Here, his breeziness can come across as laziness. He has a nice knack for metaphor, but he overuses it, robbing it of its potency. He slips into sit-commy cliché as he describes the queasiness he felt in accompanying his wife through the birth of their second child or making puerile jokes to get a kid to sit still for a hair-washing. His peers will recognize this from the Cosby days. “Oh, silly Dad!”
You want him to go deeper than he does. He tells some good, valuable truths, makes some trenchant points about parenting and our current societal hang-ups on the subject. But these passages are often cut short, as if he’s afraid of boring the reader by training his thoughts out longer, or of—and this he cops to explicitly—exposing uglier parts of himself. The strongest chapter in the book, oddly, is not about parenting. It focuses, instead, on Magary’s habit of drinking-and-driving and the subsequent arrest and criminal conviction. It’s unblinking and genuine in its expression of remorse and in rendering a real life change, honest-to-goodness growing up, humorously and seriously at the same time. A tough trick, pulled off gracefully.
This leads to the thought that Magary didn’t really want to write a book about parenting as much as just write a book about life experiences in general. And that the difficult, yet inherently interesting experience of enduring a newborn’s health crisis might have pushed him into his subject matter. I can’t know this, of course. But I’d like to read a book by Drew Magary that ranges wider and stretches further.
I’d like to read a different book by John T. Price, too. One less about fatherhood and more about bugs—the exciting variety of spiders and insects creeping and crawling around the patch of Nebraska where he lives.
Price is a powerful, elegant writer, and Daddy Long Legs does range wide and stretch far in ways that Magary’s book does not. In fact, I’d say this book is really less about fatherhood than death, really. And the history of the American Midwest. And the spiritual connection Price feels with the Savannah-like plains there. (He teaches creative writing and literature at the University of Nebraska in Omaha and writes mostly about nature.) He weaves these themes throughout the book, flashing back to his childhood and even times before he was born, tying his separate strands into tight bows at the end of each chapter so that they resonate.
But the main story, the driving plot—one kicked off by a rather pedestrian-sounding health scare and fueled by his 94-year-old grandmother’s decision to stop taking her prescription medicines—is the weakest part. While the most emotional portions of Magary’s book gestured toward untapped depths, here the ostensible depth is laid out on the surface, resulting in depictions that feel forced and shallow. Price asserts that he was having some sort of midlife crisis, though we get little evidence of that. He writes a lot about being haunted by the loss of a younger brother, born stillborn when he was eight. But his days seem ordinary and actually quite pleasant, so the journey to wellness and wisdom comes across as a bit put on. And the resolutions of the book—appreciate the time with family more, be more “present”—written in language that tilts toward florid, have an unfortunate new-age ring. “That knowledge might serve as a lighted path through the darkness,” he writes. Yeesh.
What Price really excels at is writing about the bugs that so fascinate his sons: the daddy long legs the books takes its title from; ticks, caterpillars, crickets; a praying mantis stranded on the window of a Chinese restaurant in downtown Omaha. There are lots of bugs in the book, and every time I came to another one, I rejoiced. The Price household has been established, at the insistence of the kids, as a “no-kill zone.” Any living creature found there is protected, often in old peanut-butter jars with holes punches in their lids. (In a riveting early chapter that I almost had trouble believing, Price finds a brown recluse spider—the most venomous spider found in North America—and allows his boys, ages two and five, to keep it as a pet on the kitchen counter!)1 Price knows a lot about bugs and describes them and their behavior with relish. “Egg sacs were of particular interest,” he writes, of his family’s exploratory missions into their spider-infested basement. “Especially in the middle of hatching, when the tiny spiderlings, spreading out from the white core, resembled the cosmic birth of stars.”
I would like to read a whole book by Price just about the relationship between humans and spiders. I bet it would be terrific. As it stands, both Daddy Long Legs and Someone Could Get Hurt have good qualities. You just sort of wish the people who made them had been thinking less in terms of a specific genre, and had let them be their better selves.
This spider was made famous by Burkhard Bilger’s 2007 story New Yorker story, “Spider Woman.”