THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Celebrating a father’s daze

An edgy, if somewhat thin, take on what it means to be a dad

Michael Lewis wrote most of these essays about his children, Walker, Dixie, and Quinn, for Slate. Michael Lewis wrote most of these essays about his children, Walker, Dixie, and Quinn, for Slate. (Tabitha Soren)
By David Thoreen
July 12, 2009
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It’s too late for this year. But let’s imagine you’ve already decided to buy Dad a nice fragile something or other for next Father’s Day. The key term here is “fragile,’’ because it seems our post-literate, Internet content-provider times have rendered even a solid, old-fashioned noun like “book’’ as frangible as a Fabergé egg.

But before you buy - this being a recession and the return policies of the vendor uncertain - you should first check the packaging for signs of damage.

At the top of Michael Lewis’s “Home Game’’ we see the subtitle, “An Accidental Guide to Fatherhood,’’ the adjective “accidental’’ bouncing around the brain like a free radical, with a tad too much instability for continued good health. Does this subtitle mean to suggest a.) that Lewis “accidentally’’ became a father (three times)? b.) that when he and his wife moved to France, the setting of his first column for the online magazine Slate, he “accidentally’’ wound up writing about fatherhood, since “Paris was overshadowed by a 7-month-old baby?’’ or c.) that there’s truth in advertising, that the package called “Home Game’’ is itself an accident, having been put together after the fact, at the suggestion of Lewis’s literary agent? (Really, see the acknowledgments.)

On the back of the reviewer’s package appears the label “memoir.’’ Tobias Wolff’s “This Boy’s Life’’ is a memoir. His brother Geoffrey’s “The Duke of Deception’’ is a memoir. Mary Karr’s “The Liar’s Club’’ is a memoir. Lewis’s “Home Game’’ is not. What it is is a collection of 23 short columns that appeared in Slate, concluding with a previously unpublished piece about Lewis’s efforts to confirm (and come to terms with) the success of the procedure his 9-year-old daughter called his “bisectomy.’’ Prefacing these invariably well-turned and generally amusing adventures in fatherhood is a previously unpublished introduction that makes promises that the columns themselves can’t keep - and how could they, having been written for a different purpose and a different audience?

This may take a minute, but to hear the introduction’s central promise as I heard it you need to know that Lewis has written intelligent, insightful, and interesting books about financial markets and sports and the intersection of the two. Delightful to read, the typical Lewis book centers on an emblematic figure at the center of a major or major-seeming cultural shift: in “Liar’s Poker,’’ it’s John Gutfreund, chairman of Salomon Brothers; in “The New New Thing,’’ Jim Clark, founder of Silicon Graphics, Netscape, and Healtheon; in “Moneyball,’’ Billy Beane, general manager of the Oakland A’s. In each of these books appears a secondary character named Michael Lewis, who like a latter day Nick Carraway functions as a filter through which various Gatsby-esque actions and attitudes are reported and understood. Also typical of these books is an originating question or two: “How did the second poorest team in baseball, opposing ever greater mountains of cash, stand even the faintest chance of success, much less the ability to win more regular season games than all but one of the other twenty-nine teams? For that matter, what was it about baseball success that resisted so many rich men’s attempt to buy it? These were questions that first interested me, and this book seeks to answer.’’

Thus, this reader considered himself in familiar territory when, in the introduction to “Home Game,’’ Lewis writes, “Here’s the question: Why should social interaction with couples who parent even slightly differently so quickly lead to internal strife? How can putatively important and deeply considered decisions - how to parent, and what role the father should play - be so easily undermined by casual contact with a different approach? Why should even fictional representations of different parenting styles be an invitation to argue about who should do what?’’

These are the originating questions for what could be an insightful book about contemporary fatherhood. Alas, the previously published and still Internet-accessible Slate columns do not address these issues, although Lewis does in his introduction offer “one answer: In these putatively private matters people constantly reference public standards. . . . But there are no standards and it’s possible there never again will be.’’

The changing role of fatherhood may indeed constitute a cultural shift as major as the advent of the Internet, but Lewis’s decision to place himself (rather than a Jim Clark or Billy Beane) as the emblematic figure at its center turns out to be the central weakness of “Home Game,’’ since “Michael Lewis’’ doesn’t survive the translation from observer-narrator to central character with anything like the solid reporting for which he’s justly celebrated.

As a central character, he’s mostly interested in exercising post-millennial irony, a mode conducive to humor but one that pretty much precludes consideration of complicated and interesting questions. In the end “Home Game’’ resembles less a Fabergé egg than the blown-out eggs of rainy childhood afternoons, not only fragile but hollow.

David Thoreen teaches writing and literature at Assumption College in Worcester. His most recent poems appear in Great River Review and Slush Pile (www.slushpilemag.com).

HOME GAME: An Accidental Guide to Fatherhood By Michael Lewis

Norton, 190 pp., illustrated, $23.95

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