By Tom Williams, Ben Tanzer, BL Pawelek, and Dave Housley
Cobalt Press, 2014
146 pages, $15
Reviewed by Liz Purvis
Four Fathers is a collection of prose and poetry by—perhaps obviously—four men, four fathers, and features characters navigating their roles as both fathers and sons. Tom Williams, Ben Tanzer, BL Pawelek, and Dave Housley write stories, flash fiction, poetry, and a novella, respectively, each producing characters who approach their parenthood in unique ways.
Williams’ two stories bookend the collection and, in the first, “Where You Should Be,” a young advertising professional sees his father everywhere as he spirals through a Jim Beam-fueled bender. There’s a distinct apprehension as James finds his father in strangers passing through the street, at work luncheons, and in dreams. The second-person narrator keeps attempting to reassure himself—it’s alright, no father here—only to be startled by his father’s face on the television or his voice calling Jimmy through the street.
In Williams’ second story, James is older, a father himself, traveling to his dad’s house in Chicago for a Father’s Day weekend with the whole family. This James has matured and recovered from his younger, boozy days. Both stories carry a sense of shame— for the bad choices he made, his questionable parenting ability, his inability to share of himself with his five-year-old son. Williams’ tone feels lofty at times, but this might also be seen as a result of the overcompensation his character has been taught by his own father. Both stories thoughtfully engage with characters’ racial identities and fatherhood, though it is only in the second that the reader learns how James’ biracial identity affected him as a child, in a town where some restaurants refused to serve his family.
Ben Tanzer’s poignant flash pieces capture the helter-skelter craziness of parenthood. Short and sweet, pieces like “Younger” depict the all-consuming feeling that must be loving your own child and a narrator who is honestly bumbling, tripping over himself in a compassionate muddle of active parenting. In “Moving,” the narrator is in awe at his child, who appears to both the narrator and reader as a sudden adolescent: “He’s just walking down the street in front of you. It’s what they do, of course, walk and breathe, and all those things people engage in when they’re alive and they’re growing.”
The rhythmic, poignant sections of Tanzer’s prose pack overwhelming punches. Each moment is different, evocative: the thrill of running with one child, the humor of another in puberty growing “penis hair,” the inevitable sting of rejection when the kid snubs his father’s music, the intimacy of a pretend parent-teacher conference. The full force of these moments hits the speaker, the craziness of fatherhood; even the reader can feel it like a wave, or like slamming into a brick wall of incredulous love and wonder.
As a writer who is primarily a poet, I had high hopes for BL Pawelek’s poetic section of the book, and that might be part of the reason it fell the most flat for me. This section, titled “The Princess,” was filled with poems alluding to the Snow White and Sleeping Beauty fairytales. I wanted to engage with them. The language felts very Yeatsian to me—a bit lighter than “A Stolen Child,” with the tone of “A Prayer for my Daughter”—and I wanted to feel more drawn in. My concerns in this section began when it didn’t seem to engage with the fairytale princess tropes on more than a basic level. Because fairytales have been heard so many times, drawing from them for material—without pushing up against these tropes or causing tension in new and questioning ways—felt a little trite.
What worked were the repetitious words and imagery that evoked magical lands and enchantments—“seven circles surround you / surround and protect the lights / protect the shadows” in the poem “seven circles surround you,” for example”—but what often fell short was the bigger picture. The landscape of each poem felt murky, rather than crystalline; many poems contained a turn at the end that left me confused. In “sugar and rows,” the first seven lines seem positive, with words like “sunlight,” “singing,” “beautiful and foreign,” contributing to a sense of good, light, happy things. However, the turning lines “but when the foot leaves the steel / you push” leave me puzzled. Who is the you (the daughter to whom these poems are addressed)? Where is this death/suicide/homicide imagery coming from? Was I reading all the poems before this one incorrectly? The pieces just didn’t quite coalesce for me, and, while couplets like “the sun turns around your neck / sets along the curls on hair” provided lovely, vivid images, they just were not plentiful enough to carry me through the poems with a clear sense of what happened in each individual poem and the section as a whole.
Burns, the main character in David Housley’s novella “Everything is Getting Worse,” has a major case of Peter Pan syndrome. Not only does he refuse to grow up, but he is clinging to the idea that the experiences of his youth were better, more authentic, and less manufactured than those of his young son Tyler’s. Burns is searching for a fleeting feeling from his youth—the sense that “everything is opening up, anything can happen, and I’m going to be right in the middle of it all.” Instead, as the novella’s title puts it, all Burns sees is that “everything is getting worse.”
Burns is a mess with an Adderall problem, hallucinations with the voice of Ryan Seacrest, and is facing an unfortunate crossroads at work, but he’s also a father worrying about living up to his kid’s expectations—even if that means taking the kid to a Justin Bieber concert. The teenage musician (this is the “Baby Baby” Bieber, not the partying, monkey-smuggling Bieber) is the focal point of Burns’ derision for much of the novella. There’s a delightful sense of irony when, attending this concert with his son, Burns gets completely swept up in the music. “It is a white noise unlike anything he’s ever heard, a bright yellow noise—sharp, thick, with an energy that snaps like a thousand power lines.” At the concert, he finds everything he’s been searching for, the feeling that anything could happen and the connections to thousands of other humans under bright lights and intense sound.
At times, different sections of this book, felt a bit questionably prejudiced. In “Everything is Getting Worse,” Burns’ neighbor Leon is a bastion of conservative, machismo masculinity, and at first it seems that Burns wants to imitate him, idolizes him. As the story progresses, though, readers see that Burns is catching up with the world even if he doesn’t quite want to, and it becomes clear that Leon’s mindset is on its way out. What bothered me in some places (as with the fairytales), was when authors failed to question these problematic ideas, instead playing into their legacy. In other places, like when Dave Housley’s narrator contemplates his child’s sexuality, there is a level of engagement that seems raw, even if it isn’t very PC, and a respectable honesty.
These characters may not get everything right, but all of them are trying. Many of them want to be better than they are; they all clearly want the absolute best for their progeny and their flawed, imperfect ways of showing it are indicative of the newly active co-parenthood of our generation. As Greg Olear writes in the foreword, “these are not your father’s fathers.”