Dan Zevin has spent the past two decades documenting his passage into adulthood. The transition has not gone terribly well, and Zevin, in the grand tradition of humorists, has made the most of his failures.
His new book is, in this sense, his most ambitious. “Dan Gets a Minivan’’ does lavish considerable attention on the vehicle in question, especially its regal captain’s chair. (“That’s what we call them in the minivan scene.”) But the big paradigm shift in the author’s life is that he now finds himself in possession of two small and extremely volatile copilots. Children, I mean.
While his wife works at a high-powered job involving an office and a salary, Zevin has assumed the role of stay-at-home dad. Back before kids, he muses, “I was plagued by the constant doubt that I wasn’t getting published enough; getting paid enough; getting anything enough. Now I am at ease. Having children gives every writer what they’re really searching for: an excuse not to write.”
As a fellow writer with two young ones at home, let me say this: Bingo!
Thankfully, Zevin is not ennobled by his children. They do not teach him valuable life lessons. They besiege him. “We never imagined depleting our frequent-flier miles so our kids could experience the birthplace of consumer branding,” he observes about a trip to Disneyland, “but I’ll tell you what, we also never imagined letting them eat a bag of Pirate’s Booty for breakfast.” (For those of you who do not have offspring, cheesy Pirate’s Booty is the crack cocaine of the preschool set.)
It’s hard not to feel gratitude for such brutal candor, particularly in the context of the parenting memoir genre, which tends to emphasize life-affirming bromides.
Zevin does exhibit moments of sanctimony, most notably in a chapter called “Some Friendly Advice to the Aloof Hipster Dad at the Playground,’’ which comes off as shrill. For the most part, though, he’s the same lovable schlemiel fans will recall from previous books such as “The Day I Turned Uncool.’’
Only now, he spends his days shadowing potential nanny candidates, cruising Costco with his tireless father, and withstanding the visits of his hypochondriac mother. There is also an ill-fated effort to reacquaint himself with the joys of tennis, “[t]he youthful promise of getting ripped” having devolved to “the middle-age reality of getting torn.”
Zevin isn’t aiming for literary art here. His style is more Dave Barry than David Foster Wallace. What elevates his work above mere irreverence is the quality of insight he brings to relatively familiar terrain. For instance, he zeroes in on the gender hypocrisy that still prevails among parents. Moms are expected to stay at home with the kids, and those who return to work instead are often maligned. When it comes to dads, “[a]ll that matters is that we are observed in the presence of our children,” Zevin writes. “Citizens are awed by our mere existence, and choose to accentuate the positive.”
Alas, life with the kids doesn’t leave Zevin with much to offer in the way of romancing his own wife, whom the reader senses must be a patient woman. He falls back on that dreaded marital ritual: “Here’s what date night is: Date night is when you try to recapture in two to four hours, weekly or monthly, the kind of couple you used to be before you had to schedule something as goofy and contrived as date night.”
If that doesn’t work, of course, Zevin has plan B all lined up: a long, romantic drive in the minivan.Steve Almond (stevealmond
firstname.lastname@example.org) is the author, most recently, of the story collection “God Bless America.’’