You have to feel sorry for the moderate memoirist. The dramatic stakes of the genre have been pushed to such Real Housewives levels that middle-of-the-road personalities telling middle-of-the-road stories have a next-to-impossible time holding a reader’s attention.
The parenting subgenre is no different. Unless you’re a disciplinarian who whips her kids until they can play Rachmaninoff perfectly (that’s what that book was about, right?) or a Drunk Mom, how can you keep readers interested?
This is the problem that’s all over Drew Magary’s book, the way spit-up is all over new parents.
Magary has such a likeable persona that I actually feel bad saying that. You know that beer test we give U.S. presidential candidates? Magary would ace it. He’s exactly the kind of guy you want to go for drinks with after sneaking out of the house when the kids are asleep. He’s a real guys’ guy without being all lumberjacky about it. He’s funny and self-deprecating and good at mocking his own flaws while at the same time being sharp about pointing out the idiocies of others. You can see why he’s a natural fit at GQ and the sports website Deadspin, where he is a contributor.
Maybe his editors thought a likeable personality would be enough to get in on the parenting book bonanza.
The material Magary covers is familiar territory to any parent: baby monitors are annoying, little girls love Disney princesses, playgrounds can be stressful, grocery shopping with two kids is a nightmare, etc.
As a parent of two young kids, I have about 40 minutes of free time a day, max. Do you know how much I want to read an only mildly amusing play-by-play of all the same stuff I’m looking to take a break from in that spare time? Exactly.
Of course, it’s not meant to be predictable. Magary’s book opens with the story of his third child, who is born with a life-threatening condition, and only in the final chapter will we learn if he survives.
This narrative structure always annoys me. It also makes me suspicious.
It annoys me because it tries to frame a book as some kind of suspenseful cliffhanger even though we all know that’s not what it is. And it makes me suspicious because it’s almost always an unintended admission that the material in the middle isn’t strong enough on its own to keep you reading straight through to the end.
There is an entire chapter on how hard it is to get kids to brush their teeth and another whole chapter on how difficult it is to bathe children.
“You can take a child swimming and she won’t complain for a second about getting water on her face. But get water on her face in the tub and she’ll react like you just threw acid into her eyes,” Magary writes.
Other zingers are forced enough they feel like they should come with a rim-shot sound effect.
Here, for instance, is Magary on learning to let his kids make mistakes instead of jumping in to help them. “[I]f you butt in at every opportunity, then the child makes much more costly mistakes later in life: committing armed robbery, shooting liquefied crack into her eyeballs, going to law school, etc.”
Lazy humour is even worse when it’s about kids. If my children can’t make it in to banker’s school, I will weep with joy if they become lawyers (it’s a tough financial world out there).
Or there are groaners such as this one that comes up when Magary’s youngest child is prohibited from going in a hotel hot tub. “I assume the thinking was that if a very small child got into the hot tub, a witch would burst through the door, add chopped carrots and onions to the water, and attempt to make stew out of your little one.”
He’s trying, god help him. But as the book goes on, you can feel him getting desperate to write about anything that might fill up a book. Making homemade pizza with the kids? That’s a chapter right there.
It’s possible to make everyday material funny and engaging, but to do so you need to torque your responses to it: your anxieties, your frustrations, your shock, your insecurities and worries about parenting. There are opportunities here to do that, as when Magary says how “inherently terrifying” it is to be the only dad at a Gymboree class. But instead of comical terror it all goes fine enough. Which leaves you with a story about a guy taking his kid to a Gymboree class and then coming home.
If you don’t have children and are looking for a decent primer on what to expect, Someone Could Get Hurt is a solid choice. Keep in mind, though, that parenting today is pretty boring.
Dave McGinn is a Globe Life & Arts reporter.