Book Review

The thing about dad jokes is that they’re not for you; they’re for your father. They’re chances for him to let off some steam; to not seem so harsh after he keeps telling you, “No, for the hundredth time, you cannot have ice cream for breakfast”; to show off the wordplay he usually keeps to himself that proves he sees and listens more than you think he does. Amorak Huey’s Dad Jokes from Late in the Patriarchy captures all of that, yes, but the book is also for you. The humor? Maybe not as much (at least not yet). The tenderness and intelligence and world-weariness-turned-courage that makes you feel less alone? Absolutely.

Structured like a long-form joke—Setups, Reinforcements, Misdirections, Punchlines—the collection begins earnestly, setting the stage for the speaker’s maturation into fatherhood by first delving into the past. A series of prose poems with titles like “Ward Cleaver & Mike Brady & Fred MacMurray & Dick Van Patten” and “Fred Flintstone & George Jetson” use pop culture to examine the fanciful influences TV fathers have in shaping expectations for a patriarch. The latter poem begins:

I am somewhat embarrassed to admit where I’ve gotten most of my ideas
about how the world works & am definitely embarrassed to admit how much
time I spend thinking about people who have more money than I do. When I
was thirteen, my mother said, You want to be one of the beautiful people, & although
I knew she didn’t mean it as a compliment, I took it that way. I did not realize
it was already too late, this is a club you’re in or you’re not.

There’s a divide between the reality of what we grow into and the neat way that every complication for Fred and Wilma or George and Jane won’t last more than twenty-two minutes. This speaker has watched countless examples of how “it would be enough to break rocks or build sprockets & to zip home at the end of the day to give my wife a hard time about how much she had shopped that afternoon.” Though he recognizes how impossible that life is, there remains a longing for what’s happening “across the street. . . where the beautiful people come out on summer evenings to grill steaks & caviar.” Over there, lives are easy; any problem they face is solved quickly and, probably, to a laugh track. Over there, they are “laughing, possibly at the poor sap who lives across the street & thinks you grill caviar, who believes in the nobility of hard work, who thinks that if you break enough rocks, surely you will open a path out of the quarry.”

If comedy does equal tragedy plus time, then you understand how the second and third sections build to the book’s conclusion. The sadness of longing for what’s never possible—whether on TV or the imagined lives of the beautiful people across the way—remains, but that pining for something simpler is sanded down by distance, time, and humor. These “Reinforcements” and “Misdirections” give the jokes to come as well as the men telling them more layers. The title “When a Poet Writes Afterward You Know It Means” reads directly into “after having sex; / or, after someone has died. / Before such a thing, or during, / who has time for poetry?” The poem continues into a reflection of the speaker’s parents’ interstate moves early in their marriage and “what hunger / carried them along that highway,” the same sort of hunger the speaker feels for his wife as he is

thinking about you, thinking about
desire, thinking about the tricks
a tongue plays with words,
with weather, with another tongue:
such roads we travel in each other’s mouths.

Whether it’s this poem or others from the book’s middle sections—like “FMK,” which connects wedding vows and the “fun conversation starter” game of who you’d make love to, marry, or kill—they tend to be softer, more personal meditations where the humor is present, but not biting because the stakes haven’t risen quite high enough yet.

That changes once you get to “Punchlines,” where the work reverberates from the personal to the societal. Case in point, “Dad Jokes,” which begins:

You’re rolling your eyes already.
Nice to meet you, Rolling Your Eyes
Already, I’m Dad; did you hear
what the zero said to the eight?
Nice belt & I’m gonna need to see your passport.

You may roll your eyes at a roll-your-eyes joke, but you can’t deny how the poem builds in intensity from there: “You seem to have an allergic reaction on your skin / but let’s not make any rash decisions, / health care is complicated.” Setups then turn darker: “What do you call someone / threatening to blow up Jewish daycares?” Like the speaker—like your father, perhaps—you wrestle with the same issue he has: “At some point I came to understand / my job was to make the world / more bearable for my children.”

These poems navigate the possibility of how one generation can take care of the next while also being keenly aware of wanting to be cared for, too. That vulnerability powers the book, though your dad may never admit that need keeps him sleepless just as much as his desire to see you turn into everything you’re capable of becoming.

“American Prayer,” a poem about parents checking Facebook for verification that it is, in fact, PJ Day at school, further reveals Huey’s ability to turn the mundane parts of parenthood beautiful. The inevitable debate about the chances of a child winding up alone “in their Hogwarts robes, their stegosaurus fleeces & sloth slippers” gives way to “Let ‘em wear pajamas, someone’s father posts, what’s the worst—though he doesn’t mean it, we know the answer.” But that’s the fight, isn’t it? How do fathers and mothers deal with the good, the bad, and the potentially tragic ways a school day can end for their children? Maybe by the end they can give in to hope and wonder:

Spring is weeks away but it’s cold & the sidewalks are winter-slick: half-
melted, refrozen, dangerous. Bundle up, we beg, & our children tumble
into the sky of a new day, ceramic, shatterproof, & dressed for dreaming.

You know not all fathers speak of the world like this, but enough fathers do, thankfully, that you can give a half-hearted chuckle the next time he delivers a one-liner he’s particularly proud of. He wouldn’t say it in front of you and your friends if he didn’t feel safe, if he didn’t want to feel connected, if he didn’t dream of whether he can ever do enough for you.

About the Reviewer

Michael Levan has work in recent or forthcoming issues of Laurel Review, the Rupture, Waccamaw, Painted Bride Quarterly, and Arts & Letters. He lives and teaches in Fort Wayne, Indiana, with his wife, Molly, and children, Atticus, Dahlia, and Odette.