The suburbs of the Northeast have been fertile domestic-fiction territory for decades, but Greg Olear’'s view of that landscape in Fathermucker, his second novel, is thoroughly contemporary.
As many others have before them, Josh and Stacy Lansky left New York City for the Hudson Valley once they started a family, but the shape of that family is a little different. Having sold a screenplay that almost got produced a few years earlier, Josh has become a struggling work-at-home writer and stay-at-home dad to their two children, while Stacy brings in the steady income working in marketing at IBM. Their five-year-old son Roland is on “the spectrum,” and toddler daughter Maude is a handful in her own two-year-old way. At the end of a week of single parenting while Stacy is away on business, Josh is having a real two-star (out of five) day: there are mice in the walls of his house, there’s a preschool outing in the afternoon (during which he hopes to find an opportunity to pitch an interview to one of the other parents, a renowned punk-rock musician), he and Stacy keep getting each other’'s voicemails...and he’'s very distracted by a neighbor'’s suggestion that Stacy just might be cheating on him.
Plotwise, this is clearly not new territory, but the framing is. The last few decades have made us increasingly conscious that parenting is a job. In some progressive circles, that job'’s more likely to be viewed as an intensely child-focused full-time vocation, and one that doesn't’ exclusively call mothers. Having said that, there aren'’t many at-home dads at the playgroup and on preschool field trips in the Lanskys'’ circle, and even fewer breadwinner moms. And having said THAT, the novel'’s parent-centric aspects sound like everyday conversations at school pickup (or posts on a parent blog), and that extends to the particulars of raising a special-needs child.
Much of Fathermucker sounds like everyday conversation, actually--everyday RIGHT NOW. I’'m torn over whether this is a strength or a weakness. Olear uses some very specific pop-cultural references and gives his characters dialogue that places them firmly in the 2010s. I appreciated that the novel was so current, but wonder if those details might cause it to be dated quickly--can a book be TOO contemporary? Then again, Fathermucker could just as easily turn out to be an artifact marking and elaborating on a particular point in our social history.
But regardless of how it holds up, it’'s a great read at the moment. The style is modern--Josh'’s internal monologue frequently goes stream-of-consciousness, and his speculations about Stacy’'s alleged infidelities are presented in screenplay form--and while some of the characters'’ specific concerns are very current, their larger ones are timeless. While it’'s built around some elements that are certainly ripe for satire, Fathermucker mostly avoids that; rather, I found it intelligent and earnest, without taking itself too seriously. The details are sharply observed, and the commentary is on them is often very funny. I was thoroughly engaged by this novel, and at times I thought it was brilliant.