If you are a mother, run, don’t walk, to the nearest bookstore (or e-tail outlet or downloading device) to get Justin Halpern’s Sh*t My Dad Says (It Books, $15.99). If you are a mother of mothers, do the same.

It shocks me to be writing that. I love literature—the denser the better, preferably with stirring insights lyrically delivered. Poetry is the background music of my life—a pursuit and a passion, the ever-moving goal of most of my serious undertakings. You might say I am less than drawn to light reading about crusty parents who maintain that their every grouchy impulse is an inalienable right and a worthy way of behaving. Have I made the point that I don’t customarily seek out characters whose every other statement begins or ends with the ‘F’ word? That should make all the more vivid the revelation that, closing the book, this reader finds herself ready to defend to the death the worthiness of one such man—Mr. Halpern’s dad.

It’s an achingly funny book, though the trope is clear and the snapshots are predictable from about Page 4. Yet there is something about the juxtaposition of Justin Halpern’s skewed and admittedly geeky forthrightness and his father’s seemingly monodimensional perception of the cosmic zeitgeist that arrows its way into the reader’s heart. What sneaks up on you feels like the opening of a cardio chamber that has been cloaked in self-protection. It’s possibly a dropping of the guise that grew out of that penchant for doublespeak that most of us have taken on in response to our own parents’ essential, albeit well-meaning, dishonesty.

Dishonesty, yes.

Reading this book is like having a window into the ways in which most families disavow the herd of elephants marching around virtually every dinner table, crowding into every car ride, dancing at every reunion throughout the long time we spend together, related, but relating only on levels that mask the true things we know.

There is no room for fabrication in Justin’s dad’s world. The product of a sharecropping childhood in Kentucky, later a research physician working to decode cancer, this man pulls no punches about bowel movements, sex, responsibility, marriage, pornography, or anything anywhere in that spectrum or beyond.

His punches land like a prizefighter’s fists right in the solar plexus—delivering laughter, for certain, and that sharp intake of breath that comes when the Truth is revealed with the hammer strike of a capital “T.”

And there’s a Big Something more.

When Justin started blogging about the things his dad said, there were just a few interested readers. When his portrayal became mega-viral, the readership grew to the hundreds of thousands, and publishers starting getting interested. As he began to write the book, he must have understood that to give it real heft he needed to string together the scatological encomiums that were strewn around his dad’s orbit like so many GrapeNuts with longer stories about growing up under the man’s influence. (I doubt that brand-name mention is there for product placement, but a side effect of reading this book is that it will make you crave this breakfast cereal.) What he didn’t know—couldn’t have known—was that his dad would give him a gift that wraps the book up as a volume with a hidden story arc.  It’s a comedic/tragic insight into the reason we all have to be careful with how we use our hearts. In the end, this seemingly insubstantial story reveals no less than how the body’s pumping station has very clear pipelines to the soul of each lifetime.

Equally great is the realization that the coarse hero of this book, easily dismissed as a two-dimensional and impervious bully, was nearly brought down by a grail of an epiphany during an experience of near mythic proportion. That part of the story is told by father and son in the kind of quiet voice that stops time, breath, and thoughts of anything else. It’s a nuanced and tender moment that winds up being a bigger wallop than all the jabs and left hooks that have come before.

I’ll say no more about Sh*t, other than to repeat the conviction that any woman who is raising a child should read it. All too often we speak to our children in mom code, a parental politesse that masks the fear, anger, confusion we feel. Women in particular, so well-read in parenting literature, so dedicated to getting the mom thing right, can easily be guilty of false and platitudinous attempts to preserve our children’s precious self-esteem. This book could have the impact of a modern Spock, causing us to rethink how we are delivering the message that though life is hard, honor can preserve the possibility of the miraculous.

Simply stated, no matter how it is marketed, Sh*t My Dad Says matters. What a nice surprise.

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  • Carolyn Hahn March 24, 2011 at 12:35 pm

    ..and I’m not a mother. But I’ll still run to read it!

  • Carolyn Hahn March 24, 2011 at 12:34 pm

    Even the word “Dad”–my father, weirdly, isn’t comfortable if *I* call him that, but knows my husband can’t call him “Daddy” so signs email to us “Dad.” “Love, Dad,” actually. The whole DAD relationship is so fraught, so changeable. One watches them as if at a zoo: what shaped this person, can I forgive him for what he didn’t do right, is there a statue of limitations on being pissed at flawed childhoods? Even the title, “Sh*T my dad says” tells me this man loves his father, but finds the guy a fount of unknowable, well meaning weirdness.” I’m almost scared to read it–I might find out I’m not the only one spooked for the last five decades by Dadness.