Goofy, cloyingly colloquial, if not entirely unaffecting anecdotes about growing up in Reagan-era, mall-ized Rockville, Maryland, with divorced parents.
With a dumbed-down, forgiving grace, newcomer Amsden’s narrator, at 20, re-creates painful early memories of his father’s neglect and alcoholism. The first bit, “Up Late with Dad and Shirley,” concerns the father’s failure to pick up his wife and son, five, from the airport late one night; Joe appears hours late with his tenant lady in tow, Shirley, ex-Playmate and cocaine addict. With each discretely titled story (“Education is Overrated,” “Side Mirrors are Pointless,” etc.), the unnamed narrator grows older and seemingly wiser, glimpsing more foibles of his messed-up father and floundering to maintain his own sense of self. Once his parents divorce and he lives mainly with his educated, entrepreneurial mother, visiting time means sitting in bars watching his father drain nine martinis; watching porn videos while his father and a fellow loser, Floyd, snort cocaine in the bedroom; and witnessing the disintegration of members of his father’s extended family. Gradually, the young narrator moves into adolescence; experiments with girls; bumblingly rebuffs the advances of an older pedophiliac cousin; and, finally, arrives at Hunter College in Manhattan, where he meets his wayward father for a concluding, sodden lunch at an expensive seafood restaurant. The problem about Amsden’s gum-chewing, childishly sarcastic vernacular is that it works only while the narrator’s quirky, self-deprecating personality keeps the reader’s interest—in this case, until about midway through—after which point the writing grows tedious and repetitive. The “Me and Dad” anecdotes are good for a few laughs before we yearn for more substantial fare: when the finally-arrived-at-adulthood narrator, now a college dropout, hints at his knowledge of older women, in particular their copious pubic hair, the humor has run its sophomoric course.
“You always want to apologize, to everyone really,” bemoans the narrator to himself, leading to the question: Is this confession funny or pathetic?