When Cobalt Press announced about a year ago that they’d assembled four excellent writers to contribute to the collection Four Fathers, I was probably happier than most people. My baby daughter was only a few months old and I was well aware that there is no guidebook to the whole fatherhood thing. I thought this might be as close as it gets.
Well, guidebook it is not, but this collection of stories, poetry, and a novella evoke a real and often hilarious empathy from me. One of the things about fatherhood is that many times you think you’re doing it wrong, but then you talk to another dad, find out that he did the same thing, and in the end figure out you’re actually pulling off the parenting thing pretty well. Reading this book is like having that conversation.
Four Fathers is composed of five sections. Short stories by Tom Williams bookend the collection. The first story is about a man struggling with his own life as a single guy, thinking often about his father and the relationship he has or wish he had with him. The second story (last in the book) picks up years later, after the character is married and dealing with being a father himself. Those stories sets an excellent tone for the book—by beginning with the man who has no idea and ending with the same man having figured out what only a father can, Four Fathers has a definitive emotional arc as a collection.
Between those stories is a series of flash fiction by Ben Tanzer, poems by BL Pawelek, and a novella (or a novelette, I have no idea where the line is) by Dave Housley.
Tanzer’s flash pieces each hit on a single element of fatherhood, which is an effective way to approach the experience and give the little things, both funny and serious, their due. This series of stories reminded me a little bit of Abbott Awaits by Chris Bachelder, a novel about fatherhood in flash-style vignettes. The stylistic similarities are easy to see, but the mix of wit, humor, and sensitivity to the sometimes paradoxical nature of fatherhood is what makes Tanzer’s work stand up there with Bachelder’s.
The poetry by BL Pawelek consists of a series of shared moments. Not without humor, like the rest of the sections, the verse is more intimate, and particularly focused on the father-daughter relationship, which might be why it struck such a chord for me. My little girl is 18 months old, and I found myself lingering on several lines of Pawelek’s poems, enjoying being in the society of fathers of daughters.
Houseley’s novella rounds out the collection. It deals with the pop-culture differences in the generations, and features a main character hallucinating Ryan Seacrest as a sort of pop-guardian angel. It is funny and absurd, but also examines one of the more important parts of parenting: the fact that your kids won’t like what you liked and that has to be ok as much as it hurts. A juxtaposition of Justin Beber with Bon Jovi plays a central role in this story, and brings the absurdity of it all to a poignant end.
Four Fathers comes out at just the right time for Father’s Day, and any dad who’s also a reader will appreciate it.
Joshua Isard is the director of Arcadia University’s MFA Program in Creative Writing, and the author of the novel Conquistador of the Useless. You can find him at his home page, or on Twitter.