Dadolescence, a semi-fictional account of suburban fatherhood, is the first novel by Bob Armstrong.
courtesy Turnstone Press

Book review: Dadolescence

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As children, we can be hard on our parents. In our minds and in accordance with stereotypes, parents are supposed to never falter and be without weaknesses. As Dadolescence proves, however, this childish idealization of our parents is false.

Dadolescence is the semi-autobiographical play-turned-book written by Bob Armstrong, a former Gauntlet editor and University of Calgary public affairs staff member, chronicling the oft-unseen life of a stay-at-home dad. The play, Tits on a Bull, was first performed at the 2007 Winnipeg Fringe Festival. With a humorous and cynical but insightful narrative that follows the character Bill Angus, this novel will leave you entertained, but ultimately underwhelmed.

The book follows protagonist Bill Angus. After working on his PhD dissertation for the past 12 years, Angus decides to focus on the plight of the stay-at-home father as a point of anthropological study. Mix in a never-ending list of tasks, commitments and family members left disappointed, and Angus ends up wavering in both his dissertation and perceived masculine identity.

Armstrong focuses his novel on his character's fear of failure and defeat, and how his character encounters these things even while struggling against them. Both Armstrong and his character Angus show the reader that, whether you fail or succeed in riding the rollercoaster of life, it's normal to fail, disappoint, and not be as strong you think you should be.

Unfortunately, this novel's great theme is overshadowed by the structure of the narrative, relegating it to being no more than background noise. Only by the third or fourth chapter does Armstrong get into the meat of what Dadolescence is about. The narrative follows Angus's thoughts as he goes about completing his many to-do lists while we hear his low self-esteem blaring out with every self-capitulating internal conversation. It's Angus's cynicism that will keep you entertained and reading, even if his character is unsympathetic and passive. This hyper-critical and woe-is-me-type attitude grates on your nerves after awhile, especially when he only becomes an active character in the last five chapters.

Most of the plot happens in the last four or five chapters of the 24-chapter novel, which involve Angus attempting to fix his friends' lives (who also happen to be stay-at-home fathers) while ignoring his own problems. His actions become so reprehensible that any kind of sympathy you might have had for Angus melts away.

All of Angus's character development happens in the epilogue, but the development shown does nothing to comfort the reader after losing all sympathy for the main character and interest the story. The overall impression the novel gives is that the author, with nothing else to do with his own thesis notes, lazily turned it into a book just for something to do with the past 12 years of research. This may sound harsh, but it is an objective examination of a novel's inner workings. This impression, shown mainly through the novel's poor structure, overrides the theme Armstrong tries so hard to establish.

This effect might only be due to the characteristics of the medium, though. Novels offer readers a kind of objectivity and separation from the characters, allowing you to criticize Angus's actions and decisions. Plays, however, are semi-participatory performances and make the viewer more likely to agree rather than criticize the main character. The structure of Dadolescence, wherein no conflict exists and the climax occurs in the last three or four chapters, lends itself more easily to a short play rather than a novel.

Ultimately, Armstrong's decision to merely transfer the structure of the play into a different medium instead of reconfiguring it will cause Dadolesence readers to feel disappointed in both Angus and the story overall.