Despite what we see on TV -- from "The Courtship of Eddie's Father" to "Silver Spoons," "My Three Sons" to "My Two Dads" -- single fatherhood has always been and is now relatively rare. Of the 18 million or so American children living in single parent households, only about 2 million live with their fathers. Because of its rarity, and perhaps because men run the entertainment industry, single fatherhood is considered noble, extraordinary, brave, and thus worthy of many a half-hour sitcom. In contrast, single motherhood, with its historical ubiquity among the underclass, is depressing and common, and ratings death.
Two recent books, one autobiographical, the other a novel written by a young writer without children, play on the appeal of the single dad story, but attempt to go beyond television's laughtrack and glossy stereotypes. The results are mixed.
The subject matter is familiar to me, though my membership in the ranks of single fatherhood might be considered conditional -- I am more accurately a single brother. Since the deaths of our parents in 1991, I have been caring for my brother Chris, then 8 years old, now 13. I approached the two books with special curiosity and in the case of the book written by the parenting novice -- Michael Grant Jaffe's "Dance Real Slow" -- with skepticism. I was sure that a man who hadn't actually been there would have no way to convincingly tell the story. But in this, Jaffe's first novel, he has done just that -- and written a far better book than John Thorndike's memoir "Another Way Home," which is an unenjoyable, self-aggrandizing bore.
"Dance Real Slow" describes a few months in the life of Gordon Nash, a young lawyer living in Kansas and raising his 4-year-old son, Cal, in the absence of Cal's mother, who, feeling herself "too young" for the drudgery of parenting, left shortly after his birth. Their life together is quiet and uneventful, and Jaffe renders with simple grace the small moments they share. They eat ice cream in the kitchen and Cal insists on chocolate syrup. They play basketball at twilight, even though Cal's shots cannot yet reach the basket. Gordon balances outrage, relief and amusement when, out to dinner, he smells urine coming from Cal's direction -- only to find that Cal has taken a urinal deodorizer from the bathroom, helpfully intending to bring it home.
Jaffe's rendering of Cal is exquisite, a rare, understated portrait of a child who never seems too precocious or cute, and is never burdened with being too wise or prescient in order to drive the plot or say profound things. Instead, Cal spends much of the time pouting, moody and sometimes withdrawn, probably taking himself a bit too seriously. Likewise, Gordon has the sober air of a man shouldering more weight than he had bargained for, and whose patience is easily tried. In their life together, there is fun, and there are Kodak moments, but just as often these come mixed with darker times. Any parent knows that for every moment of parental bliss -- when a child will look at you and say something breathtaking -- there are countless skirmishes about dinner dishes, bad haircuts and what exactly is appropriate attire for Gabe Koplowitz's bar mitzvah.
In "Dance Real Slow," after spanking Cal, Gordon feels rotten and eventually finds him in his room, sleeping in the closet. Gordon is compelled to join him. "I crawl in beside, my torso jammed deep into the closet, with my legs stretched over a hooked rug. I wrap my arm around Calvin, gingerly, and soon it tingles and becomes numb, but I do not move, leaving it resting over his body like a wreath. Calvin's eyes flick, his wispy lashes brushing my cheek."
Unlike many joys-of-parenting novels written by writer-parents, Jaffe's doesn't paint their lives together in rainbow hues; there is nothing sappy about Gordon's relationship to Cal as Jaffe describes it. It feels real, and the author is wise not to overstate it. But as much as Gordon loves his son, the strain is obvious. A child is an impediment -- dreams must be altered, freedom is curtailed, access to elements of life that require mobility and chance, like romance, becomes remote.
Still, Gordon struggles to love someone new, and despite the obstacles -- which include a rare and eventful visit by Cal's mother -- it appears that he and Cal will make it work. "Dance Real Slow," with restraint and humor, allows us to root for them.
The feeling one gets reading "Another Way Home," a memoir by John Thorndike, is entirely different. The book is subtitled "A Single Father's Story," and it's about as earnest and self-congratulatory as its title suggests. A wealthy Ivy League graduate, Thorndike marries a Salvadoran woman, Clarisa, while in the Peace Corps in the late 60s. They travel around South America, get married and soon after have a son, Janir. Fancying themselves farmers, they purchase some land in Chile and get settled into a life of hippie simplicity: food, shelter, marriage, baby. But Clarisa's mental health soon begins to deteriorate. What once seemed to be mere eccentricity and free spiritedness in Clarisa devolve into more dangerous qualities, and eventually, Thorndike decides he had better remove the four-year-old Janir from his mother and raise him alone in Athens, Ohio.
Thus begins the ploddingly described saga of their life together. Thorndike adjusts to his new home life, Janir adjusts to school, and the two suffer periodic visits from Clarisa, who eventually moves to San Francisco and tries to maintain contact. The story is mildly interesting, but Thorndike's writing is clunky -- each sentence seems as if it were churned out from some sense of obligation. Thus, making one's way through "Another Way Home" is a chore. It reads like the sort of memoir often self-published by the literary aspirant in the family and distributed to the relatives -- who if they read it do so out of sense of duty, and the fear they will run into the author at Thanksgiving.
Thorndike's life is unusual, and his care for Janir commendable, but somehow he seems to make a strong story less compelling than it should be, and himself an unappealing narrator. Because he is trying so hard to gain our respect and sympathy, to prove his courage and quantify his sacrifice, he ends up turning his reader against him. Each time we want to pat Thorndike on the back, we find, again and again, that he has beat us to it. At one point he compares himself favorably to Plato: "Plato wrote that every man should do four things in life: plant a tree, father a son, build a house and write a book. Nineteen seventy-seven was a banner year for me, because I was doing all four at once."
The toughest pill to swallow is his bald resentment toward his ex-wife Clarisa. A certain amount of bitterness is of course understandable, inevitable when one is left to do alone a job that ought to be done by two. And while Jaffe allows his protagonist some measure of forgiveness for his ex-wife, Thorndike's anger is unnerving. A clinical schizophrenic whose recent suicide opens the book, Clarisa still gets mercilessly trashed by Thorndike, who details each and every episode where she slipped up, in an effort to prove what an unfit mother she was: she refused to breastfeed him! she smoked pot! she wore crazy hats and thriftstore clothes! In the end, the book feels like Thorndike's side of the story, his attempt to settle the score and prevail as the victor, the better parent. Of course, doing so is tempting. Given the ocean of insecurity and self-doubt that lies before any parent, finding a foil has its rewards, providing an enemy against whom to unite with your child.
Thorndike reassures himself that he is all that stands between Janir and oblivion, that he is the only person for the job, and this sort of martyred sense of purpose gives him the motivation and meaning he needs. The same is true of Jaffe's Gordon, who in addition takes up that irresistible challenge known to most contemporary fathers, one that is almost impossible to pass up: being a better father than your own. It seems so simple -- do not make the mistakes your father made; be there always; always be steady -- but it can lead to overcompensation and an inability to give oneself a break. When you're a single parent, a lot of people will tell you, with their hand on your back and with tears in their eyes, that they're proud of you, that they "don't know how you do it." It is hard to know.
Sometimes it's easy, and sometimes it's really, really hard, and all the while you're there and he's there and you're trying to squeeze two through a life planned for one. It's easy to get caught up in the drama of it all. But it's important not to.