This is another in my Bad Parenting series, this time with two generations of bad dads: the author’s father mortifies his children by mooning his friends in public on a regular basis; the author by sliding so far financially that he’s feeding his son with whatever spare change he can scare up in the house. For much of the memoir, Ben is hanging off a monetary cliff, by his fingernails. And while his situation is bleak, the brand of humor he slips in saves the book from being Les Miserables for the New Millennium. The description of his dad’s three varieties of mooning are worth the cover price:
My father is about to moon someone. In the A&P parking lot.
I should pause for a moment and explain, from the safety of adulthood, that my father had three major styles when it came to mooning. The first and probably the most common type happened in the car, when my father was behind the wheel. Let’s call it the Face in the Window. If we were driving through Gloucester and passed a friend from his wilder, artsy crowd, he would sometimes put the car in neutral, crouch up on the seat yank down his pants and press his bare ass to the glass…I had seen the Face in the Window from the outside enough times to fear it: the twin mounds of flesh pressed hard against the window; the dark crevice down the center, like a crack in the earth; the beard of pubic hair and dangling ball sack. No one, no matter what his suit of character armor, should have to contemplate the furry pucker of his father’s asshole in the window of a car, or anywhere else. It is like seeing your own death. Actually, it’s like seeing your own death and staring at your father’s asshole at the same time.
His second style of mooning was an offshoot of the first: the Breezeway. This is identical to the Face in the Window, except the car windows are open. It’s fresher, more natural. Easier to shrug off, if you happen to catch some collateral.
The third style of mooning is the easiest to employ on the fly: the Quick Drop. This is the moon my father used when he was on foot. It could happen in an instant, at any time. He dropped his pants, threw himself over forward, and reached behind to spread his ass cheeks wide. Without the spread it was still a full-on mooning, but the effect was a little more restrained, more polite.
With parenting like that, it’s a wonder Anastas didn’t die of mortification during his teens. And as if his dad weren’t enough of a handful, it was actually his mother who was the certifiably mentally ill one. The whole family stays for a time at a residential psychiatric facility, in hopes of restoring his mother’s sanity. This period is what gave the book its title: the therapists, in a chilling moment of tough love, hang derogatory signs around Benjamin’s and his siblings’ necks. His brother’s sign reads MR. KNOW-IT-ALL, his sister’s says CRYBABY, and Benjamin is labeled TOO GOOD TO BE TRUE. So the reader tends to cut him a little slack on his own shortcomings. He successfully (to me, at least) explains how, through a combination of unlucky breaks, weak moments, publisher stinginess, and internet-induced procrastination, he comes be be significantly worse off than penniless, even though his first novel was successful, and he was given an advance for his second. It’s only when he hits rock bottom that he remembers some of the most traumatic moments in his screwed-up childhood.
There’s a lot in this book, even though it’s less than 200 pages long. Along with his finances, his marriage has also fallen apart. He’s started another relationship, one he’s desperate to succeed at. He writes beautifully about this as well, lest you think this is a short book of poor-mouthing and mooning. Here, he describes his dashed hopes for the broken marriage, expressed in two dilapidated chairs at the house he’s rented during a temporary teaching appointment. His wife was supposed to join him, but never does.
I’d been more interested when I rented the house in a pair of green deck chairs set under a tree at the end of the winding path through the woods to the pond. They had a nice view of the water; I had imagined sitting there with Marina at the end of my teaching day with a book and a glass of wine. I had never really fantasized or even thought that much about what married life with her would be like, how it would be different from the years we had already spent as a couple — so far it was just like it had always been before we decided to get married, only worse…At first I ignored the chairs down at the water. If I saw them through the window when I looked out toward the pond, or caught a glimpse of them, between the trees, while I came down the driveway in the Volvo at the end of the day — two rickety green chairs, sitting side by side — I felt a pang in my heart that I hated, but it was real. I didn’t like missing my wife the way I did, and it bothered me that when I daydreamed about sitting with her at the pond it was like something from a commercial for instant coffee…
While Anastas’ situation is bleak, he manages to end on a modestly optimistic note. I enjoyed watching him get there.
author photo: Lorena Ros