There are now two kinds of parenting books. The first group deals with the ins and outs of parenthood and babies, usually offer general guidelines that may or may not apply to your case, and tackle the uncomfortable realities of managing a baby with varying degrees of wit and humor. Then there is Jerry Stahl’s OG Dad, perhaps the only parenting book that uses equal amounts of hilarity, emotional grit, outstanding prose, and unrelenting honesty to approach parenthood and the plethora of elements that can surround it including, but not limited to, sexuality, frustration, heroin, Monsanto, and politics.
The first question OG Dad rises is an important one: is this really a parenting book? Well, it says so in the back and the title stands for Old Guy Dad. Furthermore, there are plenty of doctor visit stories, delivery room antics, diapers, crippling insecurities, inconsolable newborn insanity, and lack of sleep. However, despite the presence of those elements, Stahl pushes against the constraints of the standard parenting book like a rhyzomatic monster with sixteen arms trapped in a tiny rubber cage. Like the rest of his oeuvre, this book is a mixture of memories, play-by-play action, and exceptional storytelling. The only difference is that in OG Dad, besides everything being true, Stahl stands in the middle of the narrative in the same way he did in his bestselling memoir Permanent Midnight and deals with a life-changing situation while purposefully recording everything for posterity with a somewhat clear mind and razor sharp intent. The result is a narrative told in vignettes that crisscrosses the entire spectrum of what parenthood can be, and it’s all filtered through the lens of a man who has survived Hollywood, a career as a writer, being a father on smack, and living with the ghost of his addiction:
Last time I found myself in the delivery room, I’d laid in Mexican tar and geezed five minutes before I cut my First Daughter’s umbilical. Fast forward two decades and change, and I’m back in the baby factory, staring at a veritable opiate smorgasbord, with a love hormone and lidocaine garnish. And I don’t go near any of it. (Well, that’s not true, I kind of eyeball the stuff.)
Stahl is as exposed and honest as ever in OG Dad. From his kinks and uncertainties to his opinions on politics and his obsession with chemicals and their effects on us, something that was fully on display in the 2014 novel Happy Mutant Baby Pills, there’s no part of his psyche that he’s afraid to throw out in the open. On one hand, his observations are hilarious and his delivery makes this book an example of just how incredibly engaging and entertaining nonfiction can be. On the other hand, what he discusses in the book are themes that are as far removed from humor and comfort as terrorism and child abuse:
Not to go all crypto-Luddite here, but holy moly! Once you have a newborn–the most innocent, needy, ridiculously vulnerable creature in the world–it’s impossible to escape the sense that to live in twenty-first century America is to occupy some kind of boundaryless biosphere of corporate death-fumes and profit-driven child-sliming side effects.
OG Dad is at once a very personal series of essays (some previously published in The Rumpus and some available here for the first time) and the first brutally honest parenting manual that systematically evades sugarcoating the harsh reality of having to care for a fragile being who can’t accomplish anything by itself, keeps weird sleep patters regardless of how they affect those in the household, and mostly communicate by crying as if someone is severing one of its cute, tiny fingers. Here’s one of the author’s own definitions of the subject at hand: “A baby is like a Rorschach. An occasionally adorable, periodically screaming blob onto which we project our own fears, delights, and inner damage.” This is a text that lets readers know there are no set rules and that being fearful and freaking out are natural elements of the process. Stahl takes readers everywhere, but does so with so much candor and humor that not cracking a smile is impossible:
And without thinking, I leave the head of the bed and stagger to the foot, where, before I can blink, I see some kind of long black probe protruding from E’s savaged vagina. “Jesus fuck! What is that? An antenna!”
OG Dad: Weird Shit Happens When You Don’t Die Young is Stahl at his best: funny, smart, irreverent, brutally honest, and offering enough action and entertainment to rival any work of fiction published this year. This is a chronicle of parenthood that should be read by those of you who are going or have gone through the process because the very personal narratives also possess a universal quality. It should also be read by those who haven’t gone through the process because it is a ominous warning as much as a hilarious invitation.
Old Guy Dad: Weird Shit Happens When You Don’t Die Young
by Jerry Stahl
Rare Bird Books; 280 p.