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Four Fathers

Fiction  |  Poetry
145 pages
8” x 8.8” perfect-bound trade paperback
ISBN 978-1-941462-00-3
First Edition
Cobalt Press
Baltimore, Maryland
Available HERE
Review by Al Kratz

Four Fathers is an enjoyable collaboration of four writers: Dave Housley, BL Pawelek, Ben Tanzer, and Tom Williams. Each lends his unique voice to themes of fatherhood covering both the aspects of having a father and of being a father.

The collection has a couple of other unique design elements. It combines a variety of forms: Two conventionally sized short stories by Tom Williams, Ben Tanzer’s flash collection, a poetry collection by BL Pawelek, and Dave Housley’s piece is a novella. Other than the novella, all of the pieces were told through second-person point of view.

Tom Williams’ short stories bookend the collection. The leadoff story takes a troubled character alienated from his father and adds an extra level of in-between-ness as he deals with the impact on self from having a father who is black and a mother who is white. His friends enjoy a joke about an aging man who “sees” his father in the mirror. For the light-skinned James, who is the “you” in “Where You Should Be,” this joke only demonstrates his conflict. He doesn’t see his father in the mirror, but he begins to see him in the faces of strangers about town. It’s a powerful statement on the impact a father can have on his son’s life, even when he is not present.

For only one moment, you are a little oblique—a five-second fugue where you contemplate the features of your father’s face, hazily superimposed over the massive clock. But two blinks later, you can see straight again.
(“Where You Should Be,” Williams, p. 10)

Williams effectively uses the second-person voice in each of his stories. It smooths James’ flaws more than they would come across in first person or even third. The writer’s voice gets to be the voice of reason, checking and keeping James in place. The separation from James’ voice doesn’t position the reader close to the character, but it makes him more sympathetic.

His last story, “What It Means to Be,” was one my favorites of the collection. James is now older and back in touch with his father. He has quit drugs and alcohol and is living the benefits of that clean life, but he has further to go on rebuilding his self. He is learning what it means to give himself to the people he loves. How to listen to them, how to speak to them, how to be real.

The soft snores from the back sound to your ears louder than they probably are. And in the rear view, you can see that Buddy’s eyelids do not flutter. Only the most alarming of noises could disturb him, certainly not the sound of his father’s voice, his dad’s own voice, finding itself in the telling.
(“What It Means to Be,” Williams, p. 144)

The effect of second person in this part was that James is able to receive his lessons rather than to preach to us about them.

Ben Tanzer’s collection of flash pieces, titled “Puzzles,” is the second section of Four Fathers. He focuses his themes more on aspects of being a father and shows how serious the stakes may feel for a father even when nothing is tangibly at risk. In “Consumption,” the narrator at first thinks it’s entertaining and dark when his friend told him that he wanted to eat his baby daughter’s fingers, but then reaches a turning point when he becomes a father, too, and learns what that kind of love is

[…] how all-consuming and overwhelming it can feel. How hard it is to not want to merge with them in every possible way, because to not merge is to not live.
(“Consumption,” Tanzer, p. 28)

In “Fingernails,” a young father tackles the guilt of overcutting his baby’s fingernails, unleashing a loud cry that is more traumatizing for the father than the child.

Tanzer has such a strong and unique voice, I was disappointed to see all of his flash pieces in second person. The narration was instrumented so much with his voice that keeping it away from the characters felt choppy. I would’ve preferred to see them soar with an “I” that owns the voice rather than a “You” that tries to assign it to me, the reader.

BL Pawelek’s poetry collection follows “Puzzles.” As someone who doesn’t read a lot of poetry, the nine pages of poetry was a nice interlude between prose sections. The themes of fatherhood seems more under the surface, waiting for the reader to dig in and find their meaning. The second person in this makes more sense even when it was more ambiguous. There was a conversation between the writer and some specific you.

battle lake does not fight you
It holds and loves
and you stay with me
along the peninsula
and back to the woods
back to the shade and paths
to your water dreams on dry land.
(Pawelek, p. 73)

Dave Housley’s 41-page story, called “Everything Is Getting Worse,” uses comedy to insulate some of the emotional parts of fatherhood it explored. His character has flaws in common with Williams’ James—he snorts Adderall; he drinks; he gives and receives minimal attention to and from his pregnant wife. He’s a mess, but his story, told in third person close, has the intimacy and power of a confession or an honest self-discovery.

The boy is smart enough, aware enough to understand that he is in some way, letting his father down. Burns does not want to be that kind of father—the one who earns respect but not love. The kid is a good kid. Sweet. If he has terrible taste in music, if he is a little obsessed with the latest pop sensation—if he does, in fact, have Bieber Fever—then the best Burns can do is wait it out and let the kid follow his own nine-year-old heart. He closes the door, walks toward the kitchen.
(“Everything Is Getting Worse,” Housley, p. 87)

The comedic drive of the plot, reminiscent of Sam Lipsyte, ramps up when the father’s epiphany is short-lived. He can’t wait it out. He wants to do everything he can to break his son’s Bieber Fever. The eventual resolution of this battle, as it is weaved in with his marital issues and career struggles, nails the book’s themes of modern fatherhood.

Such themes are endless. It would be impossible to cover them all, but if anything was missing the most, it was female perspective. Maybe a group of women writers could provide an answer in a follow-up collection exploring the concepts of mother and daughter or even father and daughter. In the meantime, Four Fathers and its exploration of modern fatherhood is a good place to start for the male’s view.

Al Kratz is a Fiction Reviewer for The Volt. He is a writer from Des Moines, Iowa, a reader for Wyvern Lit, and is currently working on a novel and a short story collection. He has had work featured in Red Savina Review, Wyvern Lit, Third Point Press, Daily Palette, Apeiron Review, Corvus Review, Gravel, 1000words, Literary Orphans, and elsewhere, and he is the winner of the 2013 British Fantasy Society Flash Fiction Competition.

• This book was sent to Alternating Current by the publisher as reward for a Kickstarter campaign. The reviewer does not know the publisher and received the book from Alternating Current at random. • Permalink • Tag: The Volt •

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