As far as I’m concerned the American father became self-aware on a Saturday in the summer of 1986—the moment I spotted Bill Cosby’s Fatherhood surfing a stack of Clive Cussler paperbacks on my dad’s reading table. Huh? I remember thinking queasily.
Back then such a thing was novel; today you could fill a manly, hand-hewn shelf with dad books. From the gravely sincere ( The Joy of Fatherhood) to the somewhat less so ( Daddy Needs a Drink), there’s a how-to book/memoir/essay collection for every befuddled new father. Michael Lewis’ Home Game and Michael Chabon’s Manhood for Amateurs are only two of the most recent entries in the field.
“My children always obey me. And the reason is that I find out what it is they want to do and then advise them very strongly to do it.”
But for my money, the best of the bunch is The Boys Are Back, a decade-old memoir by one of Britain’s most barbed political columnists, Simon Carr of The Independent. It’s been published in the U.S. for the first time, thanks to Miramax’s slightly treacly adaptation starring Clive Owen (whose grounded, affecting performance is the reason to see the film). The book is a heartbreaking and very funny account of Carr’s attempt to single-parent his two sons while living in New Zealand after the sudden death of his second wife. Here is fathering at its most improvisational. “We are a father and two sons living in a household without women,” Carr writes. “We are like an experiment in a satellite, free of normal earthly influences (like guilt, and bleach, and sock drawers).”
The book is an antidote to the current trend toward hyperactive parenting. Tired of policing his 5-year-old son Alexander, Carr opts for a policy of Just Say Yes. Want to ride your bike in the house? Yes. Want to cannonball into the hotel bathtub? Yes.
“Allowing children their space,” says Carr, via phone from Manchester, England, where he’s covering the Conservative Party convention for The Independent, “that’s our peculiar gift to the world, isn’t it?”
He means fathers, men in general, whom he celebrates quite irrepressibly in his book. “There are very few all-male households around,” he writes. “There are no rules, no precedents. Being statistically insignificant, Alexander and I had no role models, we had no peer pressure. But we were male. That was one thing in our favor. At least we were male so we could do anything we wanted.”
This makes for quite a messy house—and more than a few father-son spats. Carr is candid in the book about the emotional chaos that characterized life without women. “That’s the terrible thing about being a solo parent,” he tells me. “You’re both having these terrible moods, and if they coincide you need someone else to act as a circuit breaker. A woman would say, stop arguing you two. You’re both talking about the same thing.”
Carr is a brilliantly articulate stylist—verbal communication is another matter. He and his wife Susie hid the fact of her terminal cancer from their son Alexander right until the end. “It was a disastrous decision,” Carr tells me. “You’re practicing this common deception, creating this delusion, this hallucination almost, that everything is fine.” The pages in the memoir recounting Susie’s final days are excruciatingly moving. Finally, Carr must gather the courage to level with Alexander, age 5, and the boy’s confusion is palpable: “When?” he asks. “Will she die by dinner time? Will she die by bedtime? Will she die by breakfast?”
“I probably don’t even realize now how damaged we were by all of that,” Carr tells me. In the book, a Paul Simon song on the radio makes him sob uncontrollably, but it’s a rare break. Carr maintains his Englishman’s stiff upper lip, for Alexander, and also for Hugo, his 11-year-old from a previous marriage who comes to live with them. “A minor suicide,” Carr says of his reticence now. And unhealthy to the boys, since the habit is passed from father to son. “A woman would never do that,” Carr says. “A mother would not let a boy whose father had died put his feelings away. They would winnow them out of him, wouldn’t they? They would talk to him.”
Instead, Carr and his sons wrestled. A rough and tumble game called King of the Bed became a favorite way to wreck the bedroom. And TV marathons were strenuously encouraged: The Matrix, Terminator 2, South Park. “I had… taken President Hoover’s remark seriously,” Carr writes. “‘My children always obey me. And the reason is that I find out what it is they want to do and then advise them very strongly to do it.’”
Carr laughs about it now. He was out of his depth. In fact, he says he still is. The first time he saw the film (which he likes very much, though had nothing at all to do with it; and about Clive Owen: “He’s a bit thin, don’t you think?”) Carr went in unprepared. “I didn’t see much of it frankly. I had tears in my eyes the whole time.” For a second viewing, he brought Alexander, in his first year at Brighton University, and Hugo, a Ph.D. candidate in computer science at Imperial College. “I’m so stupid about these things,” he says. “I hadn’t sort of calculated the effect it would have, especially on Alexander. He’s seeing the scene where his mother’s dying on a bed in my arms, and out it all comes out immediately, all those feelings that have been ignored or put to one side.”
Well, parenting is about making mistakes—a lesson from Carr’s book. Here’s another: “Children are boring” (a chapter title). Carr hasn’t softened on this point. “The drivel children talk!” he tells me. He used to carry a notebook around and write down what Alexander would say. “It’s not at all surprising that we tune most of it out. If you were to pay close attention, they would start, slightly, possibly, to despise you for it. They know they’re not being that interesting.”
Heresy, perhaps, to the The Joy of Fatherhood crowd. Well, Carr’s book is, gleefully, delightfully, not the dad manual for them.
Taylor Antrim is a critic for The Daily Beast and the author of the novel, The Headmaster Ritual.