Being Dad, an anthology of superb short stories from Tangent Books, initially sounded to me like a variation on Fatherhood For Beginners or Daddying for Dummies, perhaps. Far from it. It is the product of a Kickstarter crowdfunding project and has very recently won the Best Anthology prize at the 2016 Saboteur Awards. You’ll not find neat answers to the quandaries of 21st century fatherhood and male identity here. But the questions these stories raise and the resonant language they use to pose them, stayed with this particular dad for quite some time.
That’s not to say that fatherhood provides an easy common denominator for these stories. They are strikingly different in tone, setting and perspective. They are obviously very male orientated (it would have been interesting to see what a female author might say in this anthology) but they also show gender roles ‘in flux’ as the blurb says, where the very nature of fatherhood itself is explored.
The collection begins with Dan Powell’s ‘A Father’s Arms’, a moving story where boundaries between fatherhood and childhood, past and present, are blurred. The narrator’s constant battles with ongoing medical appointments, procedures and emergencies underline the daunting responsibilities of parenthood and are put into the perspective of the narrator’s own childhood and of voices from his past. However, they are often described in moments which made me laugh aloud with chuckles of recognition. A nurse, unimpressed with dad’s efforts at his daughter’s latest inoculation, has a ‘tone rough and sharp as a brick’. He tries to master the language of responsibility, sticking to the safety of ‘the key words and phrases’, performing DIY surgery on a pea jammed in a child’s nostril and seeking to control what he can as he runs through a safety checklist of elliptical sentence fragments when he shuts up the house: ‘Doors locked. Lights off. Cooker off’.
His father’s voice makes itself known in his imagination; while it might sound like a judgemental voice, it raises ongoing nagging questions or doubts that seem to be universal. As the narrator says, parenthood ‘is all present tense’ (and ‘tense’ in all senses of the word). Appropriately enough, the story is structured in non-chronological form; it is a constant ‘now’ after the threshold into fatherhood is crossed, when the narrator says ‘I became a father when I wasn’t paying attention’.
Rodge Glass’s ‘The Jim Hangovers’ also explores the idea of growing into parental responsibility. The narrator’s relationship with his drinking buddy, Jim, is also ‘all present tense’, where ‘whole days have gone undocumented’ in boozy laddishness. There are wonderfully ridiculous anniversaries to commemorate which provide excuses for the boys to lose themselves in epic sessions at the pub, such as the day of C.S. Lewis’s birth, for instance. Now those days are ancient history as his memories of the laddish late 90s ‘boom times’ are replaced by the constant present of ‘night feeds’ which punctuate the story. It’s a poignant detail that the narrator’s final drink (and, indeed, his final contact) with Jim is in the same week as 9/11, a day which will become a genuinely potent anniversary. It’s a date which marks a passage from one period of history to another, from those ‘boom times’ to much darker times and, eventually, for the narrator, from boozy bachelor to dad.
As with many anthologies, the sequencing of the stories provides interesting juxtapositions. ‘In the Marshes’ follows ‘The Jim Hangovers’ where, again, a pre-fatherhood life haunts the present. The widower protagonist tries to move on from his bereavement and returns to his childhood territory in the marshes, scene of a much earlier loss. This landscape, or more accurately, waterscape, is an interstitial place, a blurred boundary between past and present, life and death. It’s here that a father can ‘placate the memory, preventing it from harming the mind’ so that the past can be ‘overwritten with new memories’. While I had some doubts about the faint marsh gas whiff of folk magic clinging to the final pages of this story, there is no doubt that it is a deeply affecting narrative which I felt was a highlight of the collection.
‘Sound Boys’ by Courttia Newland also explores the shadow of the past to poignant effect. It is a rite of passage story which also richly evokes the sounds and tastes of South London on the cusp between the late 70s and early 80s. The potency of the sights, sounds, tastes from that time and the memories they conjure is everywhere; indeed, the steam from lavishly described ‘marinating goat, minced lamb, dumplings, patties, roti’ is described as floating ‘like some ancient ancestral spirit’. Presiding over the narrator’s memories is ‘the dark father’: his DJ dad, ‘poised between twin turntables, the huge shadow looming’. The narrator is a golden child, a secret weapon in the marvellously described dub battle between the rival crews of Bagga Wire and Virgo. A moment of precocious triumph is devastatingly reduced to feelings of shame and inadequacy, where the narrator’s young rival is seen as his own ‘father’s son’.
Andrew McDonnell’s ‘Breakfast by the Motorway’ provides another threshold – this time from marriage to divorce. There the narrator is ‘lost in hostile land’, among the ‘£1.99 maps’ while he waits for a meeting to finalise legal proceedings appropriately enough in a motorway services, a place on the way to somewhere else, far from any notion of home. There is the powerful description of how his wife’s new husband, and his own replacement, ‘will never see his dead parents in my children’ or ‘how the blood knocks at his wrist like a bailiff’. As with the rest of this anthology, such powerfully emotive descriptions sit cheek by jowl with the comedy of the narrator’s ineffectual protest in the gentlemen’s loos against a life which seems to be leaving him behind, pissing ‘a little on the floor in protest but ending up hitting the edge of the urinal and splashing my trouser leg’. Such comedy, though, is left behind, just as the narrator is being left behind at the services, holding his daughter’s lolly and feeling ‘a rising panic’, ‘watching you pull away from me’.
These emotionally affecting stories co-exist with others where emotional intelligence, or its absence, provides a central focus. Toby Litt’s fantastically funny ‘Paddy and K’Den’ could not be more different from some of the other stories described here. Middle class white fatherhood battles modernity and the inconvenient behaviour of insolent children and powerful women. Paddy is an academic caught up in a scandal involving a female Muslim student. He then gets embroiled in arguments about the influence that K’Den, a black schoolboy, is having on his own son, Max. K’Den is apparently an ‘evil so and so’ who’s ‘got an iPad’ and who ‘stays up till all hours’. Paddy can’t help but notice how ‘sex obsessed’ the lyrics of Max’s favourite music now is; apparently, they’re all ‘extended metaphors for blowjobs’. He can’t seem to understand the generation following him, although he is fully aware ‘he sounded like he was from the 1950s’ when he looks around with puritan disgust at a ‘whole culture’ which seems to be ‘based around preening little toerags, plucked eyebrows and affectedly shaved heads, who told you it was okay to use and abuse bitches and ho’s.’ Litt’s prose here is irresistibly quotable: Paddy dismisses the culture in which he finds himself with one gem of a line about ‘that fucking Pharrell with his fucking ‘Happy’’. Paddy is also struggling to come to terms with the female authority of his faculty’s Dean or his child’s Headteacher; neither have a name, but Max’s Headteacher is described as being ‘very tall’. Indeed, it seems as if he is battling against a female conspiracy; K’Den’s mum, he notices, has long fingernails and a ‘ludicrous blonde wig’ while the Head also has ‘orange hair and bright yellow fingernails’. Revealingly, he expresses his horror at the possibility of being fired from his teaching job and being ‘reduced to a house husband’. Paddy is the voice of male, educated, middle class common sense, a grumpy old man railing against political correctness gone mad. He’s perfectly ‘right on’ in his own way, really; he’s hardly Jeremy Clarkson and we can laugh at the note of cathartic reactionary outrage in his voice. As his wife says, he’s really ‘not like that’. It’s only the final lines which might give us pause, where we hear this voice of reason recalling the video stream from another female student ‘and her white, so white, screenlit face’.
Paddy’s grumpy old man might be compared with the emotionally illiterate protagonist of Richard V.Hurst’s intriguingly titled ‘=VLOOKUP’. Here is a man who seeks to understand and quantify the familial connections of his own company’s business contacts through an innovative use of spreadsheets. Everything here is in the present tense, a constant now which provides an interesting contrast with Powell’s ‘A Father’s Arms’. The dialogue is bare, denuded of emotional content; when asked if there are problems at home with his own familial connections, he finds the question ridiculous. If this anthology is exploring what it means to be a father, this character seems to be someone who occupies the space but not the role of a father. His son, Zak, is assaulted by a girl at school; following this incident, he gives Zak the benefit of this convenient advice: ‘you should fight your own fights’. However, in eventually seeking to quantify what makes his son’s assailant tick, he crosses a boundary between office bound obsession and a much darker territory.
This emotional void is measured out to wonderfully comic effect in Lander Hawes’s ‘Bird Tables for Swans’ where a well to do divorced dad assumes a very matter of fact voice that is both smug (as he reflects upon a garage ‘occupied with my vintage cars’ or ‘shiny new…DIY machinery’) and self-pitying as he observes that his family has ‘abandoned’ him. He has no idea of the emotional effect the divorce seems to have on others, observing that his wife ‘had lost weight since the last meeting which made her look even older’. He finds consolation (and control, perhaps) in the form of extravagant feats of carpentry. They actually seem to be conduits of a fury and resentment we aren’t fully aware of until the grotesquely funny revenge of the ending.
Being Dad contains some very dark tales where ghosts of the past invade the present, but thankfully, there are also stories which adopt a lighter and equally engaging touch. It’s obviously a very universal collection: the presence of fathers is an abiding one here, not just the idea of being a father oneself. This is an excellent collection which full deserves its recent accolades and which can appeal to a very wide readership; we all have fathers, present or absent, and they cast a shadow over all our lives and over these stories. As a character in the closing lines of the final story in the collection says, ‘we never met, my father and I, but when I touch the ball of my thumb with my index finger, I feel the scatter and rub of him’.