Balancing Act

A novel perspective offered in essays on being a father

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Fatherhood

Fatherhood (Frank Gaglione / July 6, 2006)

It's evident before you even crack open the book that you're not going to get a stream of treacly sentiment in the pages of "When I First Held You: 22 Critically Acclaimed Writers Talk About the Triumphs, Challenges and Transformative Experience of Fatherhood" (Berkley).

The cover blurb ("Glows with radical honesty … incisive") is from Adam Mansbach, author of the spot-on, bitingly witty children's book parody, "Go the (Expletive) to Sleep."

An essay by "Mystic River" author Dennis Lehane opens the collection. Novelists Lev Grossman, Andre Dubus III and Frederick Reiken are among the other fiction writers whose words fill the pages.

It's a lovely compilation that quickly starts to feel like a collection of short stories, so effective are the narrative arcs, so compelling are the characters.

"I went for novelists over nonfiction writers in hope that they'd tell some good tales," editor Brian Gresko told me.

But the tales are all true.

"The thing I asked was that they be really honest and hold no punches," Gresko said. "I said it was OK to be humorous, but not at the expense of honest emotion."

He got what he asked for. "When I First Held You" is a peek behind the scenes at modern fatherhood — at modern fathers, really. What they're feeling, if not talking about.

"My wife belonged to a moms group in the neighborhood, and they had play dates and hung out together and chatted about being moms," writes Grossman. "There was a dads group, too, and I would absolutely have joined it, except for the fact that I would rather have died."

The essays range in tone from funny to heart-rending.

Bob Smith writes about the injustice of living with Lou Gehrig's disease, which has robbed him of a voice and most of his strength.

"The true marvel of children and novels is that they allow us to imagine someone else's hardships," he writes.

And later, "Good parents … are field guides for our children on how to live. Each volume contains its own expertise on making bad decisions, recovering from painful events and identifying toxic, selfish (expletives). I'm determined to stay in print."

Ben Greenman writes about the exhilaration of witnessing his sons' lives unfold.

"It is rejuvenating to locate yourself near the start of things, whether a child's life or an essay. There is so much left to do."

And this: "Bridges are engineered. Children are worked toward, clumsily, imperfectly, with a deep and almost religious faith in trial and error."

In his introduction, Gresko writes that all men ask themselves, "Am I a good father? Or a good enough father?"

Does the book, I asked him, help the writers — and the readers — answer that question?

"I think what the essays do is, they show you that every man has these dark nights of doubt," he answered. "And all we can do is move forward, motivated out of love for our kids."

The writers have very little in common outside of the fact of their fatherhood. But they're endlessly good company, and you find yourself rooting for their interests and their happiness. And their children.

"A multitude of voices are included from men of different ages, with children at all stages of life," Gresko writes. "Taken together, the essays create a nuanced mosaic of fatherhood, the darks and grays amid the highlights. No father's story is simple or monochromatic."

That's not always reflected — in books, on sitcoms, in commercials. Much of anywhere in our culture, to be frank. We tend to paint dads with pretty broad strokes.

"When I First Held You" is an exception and hopefully the inspiration for more work that treats fatherhood with grace, humor and, above all, honesty.

hstevens@tribune.com

Twitter @heidistevens13

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