Once upon a time, the number-one sportswriter for the better of Detroit’s newspapers was a better-than-average slice-of-life columnist named Mitch Albom. But Albom is no longer just a sportswriter. Instead, an earnest, heartfelt memoir and a handful of unabashedly inspirational novels have made him the foremost producer of Father’s Day books.
He’s also become a symbol of something to avoid, at least for novelists writing about relationships among men, afraid enough of sentimentality that they’re willing to lurch in the opposite direction, sometimes even outright. Right at the outset of Rage Is Back (Jan. 10, Viking), Adam Mansbach — or his narrator Kilroy Dondi Vance — excuses himself for breaking the fourth wall and straining the reader’s credulity, explaining that “if you’re already frowning and thinking I’m an unreliable narrator, or going, ‘Oh goody, I love magical realism,’ then you should cut your losses and go read Tuesdays with Morrie.”
Mansbach is hardly alone in bristling against the taint of sentimentality. John Kenney’s Truth in Advertising (Jan. 22, Touchstone) opens with the arm’s-length cynicism of adman-in-crisis Fin Dolan distancing himself from the self-importance and shop talk of his stagnant career as an uninspired copywriter. He’s one of a tribe “so much alike in wardrobe, attitude, worldview, background, humor; readers of HuffPo, Gawker, Agency Spy, people who quote Monty Python, Spinal Tap, Waiting for Guffman, who speak in movie-line references over and over.”
This is familiar enough that it’s a relief when Kenney decides he doesn’t need to maintain his edge, and steps away from ad-industry satire. Truth then becomes the story of a middle-aged white guy getting himself together, forced to grow up after holding on to adolescence for too long — familiar Nick Hornby territory. But even if Kenney follows a well-marked playbook, down to an almost single-minded concentration on his male characters and their relationships, he’s sure-handed with the grace notes, especially with Fin’s tendency to soundtrack and post-produce his lower moments: “It makes life more interesting for me, gives me a wonderful sense of false empowerment.”
Not that distance is the only way to avoid sentimentality. A book like Marjorie Celona’s intense Y (Jan. 8, Free Press) goes in precisely the opposite direction, painful and immediate, as it twists together the stories of Shannon’s childhood in the foster system and her mother Yula’s decision to abandon her newborn daughter on the steps of a YMCA. Celona’s writing is clear and strong, and she avoids fripperies like metaphor or flowery prose, so it sticks out when she does, emphasizing baby Shannon’s smallness by describing her head as “the size of a Yukon Gold potato.” But if Y is unadorned and humorless, it’s also lean and honest, without self-pity. Then again, Y is also a book about mothers and daughters, not fathers and sons — no less fraught a relationship, but judging by the memoir shelves, one that’s easier to approach earnestly.
It’s this very lack of earnestness that mars Mansbach’s otherwise enjoyable, hyperkinetic Rage Is Back. Rage is a person — Billy Vance, leader of the legendary Immortal Five graffiti crew — and Dondi’s absent father, driven out of the city when his son was 2. He’s returned to stop, more or less, the mayoral campaign of the Metropolitan Transit Authority chief who killed his closest friend 18 years before.
Mansbach uses Dondi’s manic energy and slang and direct address as a shoehorn, channeling a bunch of stuff into the book, from a heist to a pocket history of the glory days of train bombing. But the father-son story is a bait-and-switch, with neither character as developed as the patter Mansbach pushes through Dondi’s mouth. In fact, the closest they get to rapport or even conversation is a 16-page shared psychedelic trip, as tiresome on the page as it sounds, evading the difficulty of describing a real relationship with a flight into fantasy. Not necessarily all that far from the pressures that would turn a sportswriter away from his beat and toward wish-fulfilling, inspirational fiction.