April 24, 2014
(++++) JUST KIDDING
Big Nate: Great Minds Think Alike. By Lincoln Peirce. Andrews McMeel. $9.99.
Confessions of the World’s Best Father. By Dave Engledow. Gotham Books. $18.
Someone Could Get Hurt: A Memoir of Twenty-First-Century Parenthood. By Drew Magary. Gotham Books. $17.
The ongoing adventures of preteen Nate Wright, detention-getting champion and all-around hero of cluelessness, continue in the latest full-color compilation of Lincoln Peirce’s comic strip. As always, Peirce makes elements of the strip self-referential – that is, a comic strip about comic strips (and including some “drawn” by Nate himself). At one point, Nate’s friends discover him reading a “lame comic strip” called “Bethany,” which could represent any one of a variety of strips that continue to take up newspaper space (yes, newspaper space) although long past their prime. “I read ALL the comics, even the ones that STINK,” Nate explains to his friend Francis. “Do you know what it’s LIKE to read a comic strip you HATE?” Elsewhere, Nate – who is the champion of Prank Day outlandishness at school – scans a picture of the head of his teacher nemesis, Mrs. Godfrey, “onto the body of a sumo wrestler” and sends it everywhere around the school district “disguised as an urgent memo from the superintendent.” Unfortunately for Nate, there is little call in school, or out of it, for most of his particular talents, with the result that he finds he needs tutoring in math – and is assigned to be helped by Artur, the super-nice guy who speaks oddly and is unrelievedly good at everything and liked by everybody, and of whom Nate is therefore overwhelmingly jealous. Nate actually has nemeses everywhere – there is also “brainiac” Gina, regular winner of the school’s “Outstanding Scholar” medal. So of course Nate sets up a contest between Gina and Francis, who is almost at Gina’s level; and of course things do not go quite as Nate plans. They rarely do, which is one charm of the strip. But Nate’s failures are never overwhelmingly humiliating, and his willingness to bounce back from anything and everything is a major element of his attractiveness as a character. Somehow Nate comes across as basically nice, even when tormenting his father about dad’s diet or repeatedly calling local TV weatherman Wink Summers to complain about or comment on his forecasts: “You keep RAISING my hopes, then DASHING them to PIECES with your METEOROLOGICAL INCOMPETENCE!” The comic strips “by” Nate are an added and always-amusing feature, too, such as the ones in which he totally misinterprets pretty much everything about Thanksgiving. Actually, Nate misinterprets a great deal, but manages to recover from the consequences and keep readers laughing – quite an accomplishment.
What Dave Engledow is trying to accomplish in Confessions of the World’s Best Father is laughter, too, but it is laughter with a photoshopped edge – lots of them, in fact. This is one of many recent books based on material that has proved popular on the Internet; and like many such books, it has a mixture of genuinely funny and genuinely cringeworthy elements – getting an overall (+++) rating as a result. The idea here is to trace the first years of Engledow’s daughter’s life in a ridiculous way, making Engledow himself into the butt of repeated jokes based on the “World’s Best Father” mug that appears in every photo. The photos are carefully staged, and of course the extremely dangerous things going on are intended only to amuse; and on the Internet, seeing one or several of these constructed images would be fun – a glance here, a glance there, and then on to something else at some other site. But a book is different: it invites focus, allows and even encourages close examination of pages, and lets readers dwell on the elements of a scene – and lots of the ones here do not stand up well when considered for more than an “Internet second” or two. There is “Day 258,” with a blazing fire in an outdoor grill, Engledow adding more lighter fluid to the flames and encouraging little Alice Bee to roast marshmallows from her high chair. There is “Day 341,” with Alice Bee brandishing an electric carving knife at Thanksgiving as Engledow explains that “she is going to have the honor of carving her very first bird today.” On “Day 462,” Engledow is wearing a blood-spattered apron while stitching up a gash above Alice Bee’s eye, “since 911 no longer responds to my calls (long story).” On “Day 477,” Alice Bee is standing inside an outdoor hibachi within which flames burn merrily. On “Day 580,” Alice Bee has cut off Engledow’s finger with a pizza cutter, and the little girl is smiling happily at the blood all over. On “Day 669,” Engledow describes and shows a tandem bathroom break, with himself sitting on the commode while Alice Bee sits atop the tank behind him. A little of this – a very little – goes a long way, and that is often the case with Internet attractions, which are designed for the shortest possible attention span. Engledow obviously intends readers to see that the scenes he has created are so outlandish that they could not possibly be real, and he even includes a back-of-the-book “Behind the Scenes” section to give an idea of how he put some of the photos together. And that is all well and good, but the fact remains that any reader, parent or not, who spends more than a split second or two looking at the pages of Confessions of the World’s Best Father will be at least discomfited, at most appalled. Intended to be all in fun, the book requires more than the traditional “willing suspension of disbelief” to be what it claims to be.
And then there is Drew Magary’s Someone Could Get Hurt: A Memoir of Twenty-First-Century Parenthood, which has much the same sensibility as Engledow’s book, but no pictures. Originally published last year and now available in paperback, Magary’s is actually a better book than Engledow’s, leavening the sarcastic humor with some seriousness and even a few touching scenes. But it is overdone and does not wear particularly well, getting a (+++) rating as a result. For one thing, Magary thinks four-letter words are cool, and he uses them incessantly. So one has to admire the comparatively mild bonding-with-his-daughter scene in which the two exchange “butt” jokes at bath time rather than ones using stronger language. In fact, Magary’s agreement to stop those jokes – at his wife’s insistence – shows more maturity, even if unwillingly, than most of the rest of what he writes about. Magary overdoes pretty much everything: when his wife is sound asleep, he says, “She was down like a gunshot victim” – just one of many tasteless and inappropriate remarks in Someone Could Get Hurt. Yet the book is periodically a pleasure to read, if only because Magary seems so clueless about just how clueless he is, or was. “You’re supposed to leave a baby in a crib alone, with no other accoutrements around, because it can roll into things like pillows and suffocate. If I propped her up on a pillow, she might die. Then again, I was very, very tired. I propped her up on a pillow.” Stylistically, Magary often manages to combine tastelessness with a rant within a page or so, as when there is a possible issue of flat head syndrome involving his son: “I kept running my hands along the boy’s head, checking for imperfections as if I were a Third Reich phrenologist. …When your child is in danger of having a flat head, you quickly learn that the money-grubbing executives at Big Helmet have gone to great lengths to make baby helmets seem like a normal, even fashionable thing.” But then, as if accidentally slipping into sensitivity, he actually comes up with an occasional touch of insight: “We live in an age of remarkable sensitivity, where other parents go to great lengths to appear tolerant and accepting of ALL children, not merely their own. But deep down, we’re just as judgmental and catty a species as we were decades ago. The patina of niceness almost makes it worse.” Magary’s nearly inadvertent thoughtfulness is displayed to its greatest and most affecting extent at the end of the book, when his third child is born and is at risk of dying – and is placed in the hospital’s Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. This chapter, which immediately follows one filled with slapstick about making a “masterpizza” at home, finally shows that Magary is a real human being who is not always putting on a “how cool I am” act. Someone Could Get Hurt becomes, at the end, a real, affecting and memorable narrative that overcomes some of the snarkiness of earlier chapters. But not all of it, and the after-reading impression of an odd mixture of the nice and nasty is not a particularly pleasant one.