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November 7, 2011

Dadolescence by Bob Armstrong

Dadolescence is one of a few books I’ve read this year– along with Kate Christensen’s The Astral, Shari LaPena’s Happiness Economics and even the story “Summer of the Flesh Eaters” from Zsuzsi Gartner’s Better Living Through Plastic Explosives— that considers what it is to be a man apart from traditional institutions of masculinity. Is a man still a man when his wife is his family’s main breadwinner, when he’s spent his career chasing after artistic dreams that haven’t come true, when he’s become decidedly middle-aged and no longer attracts admiring glances from women (if he even ever did)? As outliers on the spectrum of masculinity, the men in the novels I’ve mentioned are dumped into a catch-all house-husband/stay-at-home dad catagory, but they fit in here as awkwardly as they do everywhere.

Though Bob Armstrong’s Bill Angus is a stay-at-home-dad, his son is old enough and independent enough that the novel doesn’t fully examine that experience. Rather, Dadolescence considers what happens to every stay-at-home parent when they begin to realize that their role is becoming obsolete. They’ve stayed home for the kids all these years: now what? Though Bill avoids addressing this question throughout the novel, deluding himself into thinking instead that the PhD thesis in anthropology he’s been not writing for years is ever going to be finished.

His stay-at-home dad neighbour/colleagues have similar diversions. Dave has become obsessed with remodeling his house in order to add resale value, digging up floors and knocking down walls (sometimes load-bearing). The tipping point arrives when he decides to built a turret on his 1950s’ bungalow. Meanwhile, Mark tells implausible stories of his work on a cattle-ranch, as a police officer, influencing Bono, and now he’s gunning for an astrophysics contract with NASA. And Bill is taking this all in, imagining himself turning his neighbours’ experiences into an anthropological study of modern masculinity, supposing himself to be removed from what he is observing, though also terrified that he isn’t.

Meanwhile in his preoccupation with his neighbours, Bill finds himself neglecting his household duties, disappointing his twelve-year old son, and (almost) failing to notice that his wife is drifting away from him.

Dadolescence was written from Armstrong’s play Tits on a Bull, which was performed at the 2007 Winnipeg Fringe Festival. Which means that the voice of the hapless Bill comes through with enormous humour, though it overwhelms the novel itself at times and tells much more than it shows. Bill himself is also such a passive character that the plot lags with him at the helm, and in order to be resolved resorts to some screwballish hinjinx. Nothing is subtle here, everything a little bit over the top, but it’s as funny as it’s meant to be, and more than once, I laughed out loud.

In Dadolescence, Armstrong has captured that difficult period in the life of every Gen-Xer, when it becomes time to unload the vinyl evidence of one’s “youthful audio anglophilia” at a garage sale, and finally begin to grow up.

2 thoughts on “Dadolescence by Bob Armstrong”

  1. Mr. B says:

    Dadolescence is now on my list. Thanks! If I could suggest another title, Michael Chabon’s Manhood for Amateurs is sharp and heart-breaking and I recommend it to all fathers, sons, and brothers.

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