With Father's Day only a day away, we thought the perfect person for a guest post would, of course, be Justin Halpern, bestselling author of Sh*t My Dad Says and his latest book,I Suck at Girls, which we loved so much we made it a Best Books of May selection. In this exclusive essay Halpern shares his thoughts on the lessons of fatherhood he took from books by Upton Sinclair, Richard Price, and Cormac McCarthy.
I grew up in the eighties and early nineties in front of a television. On TV, fatherhood breaks down in to two categories: The dad who loves his kids and shows up to all their graduations and sporting events, and the irresponsible dad who has an alcohol problem, seems like he's turned the corner, but ultimately disappoints his child. When presented with those two options, the answer seemed easy. "I'll be the good dad who loves his kids!" Then, in eighth grade, I read Upton Sinclair's The Jungle.
Although this book is probably best known for its depiction of turn of the century meatpacking producers and the immigrants who worked there, for me it was the first book I read that detailed how much responsibility came with having a child. Sinclair uses Jurgis, the patriarch of an impoverished Lithuanian family and puts him through hell, a hell Jurgis accepts because he needs to provide for his family. There's not even a question in Jurgis's mind that he needs to keep working, even when the bottoms of his feet are infected and rotting. Then, finally, after Jurgis loses family member after family member he sets out on his own and for the first time in the book, the character expresses some level of happiness even though he's a hobo.
Sure, maybe most took it as a commentary on the dream of capitalism that America was selling, but I took it as Sinclair grabbing me by the shoulders and screaming "Fatherhood is a prison! RUN!" I would have signed up for a vasectomy right then and there if they had offered it to fourteen year olds.
Being a father is much different in the twenty-first century. Parenting techniques are debated to the point where many people, including myself, tend to take for granted our most basic duties as fathers; to keep our children alive. The Road by Cormac McCarthy reduces fatherhood to it's the bare essentials. The father in this story doesn't worry about whether or not he should try attachment parenting. Instead he worries about whether or not a roving band of cannibals will toss his son in a basement and eat him while he's still alive. Reading this book will remind you of the primal obligations of fatherhood.
Hopefully when you've finished raising a child, they've become an upstanding citizen and someone you're proud of. Unfortunately that doesn't always happen. Richard Price's Lush Life is largely a story about cops and inner-city kids, but what stood out to me was the relationship a Detective named Matty had with his sons who end up committing a very stupid crime. Price does a beautiful job of showing us a father trying to come to terms with his own mistakes for the good of his children, something I hope I will be able to do someday.