Justin Halpern writes a (mostly believable) bestselling book about his dad’s occasionally X-rated witticisms.
Sh*t My Dad Says (It Books, $15.99) opens with author Justin Halpern getting abruptly dumped by his long-term girlfriend and having to move in with his mother, Joni, and eponymous, sh*t-saying father, Sam. That might sound like a tough break, except that it quickly leads, via Halpern’s unexpectedly popular Twitter feed of his dad’s colorful expressions, to offers of fame and fortune beyond his wildest dreams.
The only problem is, his dad is a private guy, and Halpern is pretty sure he won’t be too happy being the subject of a book. So when Sam’s reactions are, in order, “What do I give a fuck?”, “Publish whatever you want,” and “Whatever money you get, keep,” Halpern can’t quite believe what he’s hearing—which is an appropriate way to start, really, because for much of the book I can’t quite believe what I’m reading.
I’m not accusing Halpern of pulling a James Frey, exactly—he won’t be on Oprah any time soon—and even though it does seem rather unlikely that anyone in his family can remember so accurately so many of Sam’s old chestnuts from twenty-five years ago, I’m pretty convinced that all the events in here did actually happen more or less as he says they did. What I can’t quite believe is that Sam can be such a foulmouthed, never-takes-any-shit, ball-busting hard-ass all the time, and yet simultaneously be the caring, concerned, and ultimately pretty great father and human being that by the end of the book we can clearly see he is. It seems like one of these things has to have been embellished—and my money is on the sh*t.
That’s because the recycled Twitter quotes scattered liberally between chapters here sound more like a one-dimensional SNL character—or the Shatner-ized version of Sam coming this fall to a CBS sitcom adaptation of the book—than the very real, very interesting guy that Halpern shows his dad to be, in the roughly chronological vignettes that make up the rest of the book’s slim 160 pages. These range from the forgettable (Sam, babysitterless, is forced to take Halpern to a lecture he’s giving) to the gut-wrenching (Halpern promises to help his dad in the yard but then forgets about it because he’s trying to get laid in Mexico), but they’re all extremely readable, and they do their job well: telling a typical male coming-of-age story, sure, but also painting a portrait of Halpern’s dad that is, in the end, reverent and really very sweet. (“I’m proud of you,” Sam says in the final chapter. “Have some Grape Nuts.”)
That Sam is such a good father, though, and that Halpern clearly thinks so too, is precisely why the Twitter parts read as false and even unnecessary—because it seems like their sole function is to earn cheap laughs by showing Sam as little more than a heartless old grouch. (“Jesus Christ, can we have one dinner where you don’t spill something?… No, Joni, he does do it on purpose, because if he doesn’t, that means he’s just mentally handicapped, and none of the tests showed that.”) But Sam isn’t a heartless old grouch, and he deserves our sympathy—it’s just hard to be sympathetic toward someone who you only know through out-of-context quotes selected to show off his hard-assery. For the first half of the book I mostly found myself marveling not at what a good dad Sam is, but at how Halpern managed to get to 30 without needing some serious therapy.
And I suppose that may be intentional, because it actually gives a nice sort of arc to the reader’s eventual realization of Sam’s true nature—but if that’s the case then the Twitter parts should be a jumping off point, not a through-line; they should serve like training wheels and be gradually removed. (They might as well have been, to be honest, because I skimmed and then altogether skipped them as I became more engaged in the memoir parts.)
Indeed, by the time you’ve really come to know Sam, the focus on “the sh*t he says” begins to feel a little bit irrelevant and occasionally insulting, and Halpern’s own awareness of that fact—and discomfort with it—grows all too clear as the book progresses: the more Halpern writes, the greater the pains he takes to qualify his characterization of Sam, and of course he ends on the endearing “Have some Grape Nuts” note without a Twitter entry in sight. If that’s the “real” Sam, though, why lean so heavily on the caricatured one?
The cynical (though I suspect sadly accurate) answer is that either Halpern or his publisher or both were worried that the heartwarming father-son relationship wasn’t enough to carry the book on its own. The target demographic here, after all, is presumably the same people who already follow the Twitter feed and read Halpern’s shorter work on Maxim.com—and those sorts of people (read: men) aren’t supposed to like this touchy-feely bullshit, right? They need the laughs and the profanity or else they’ll lose interest.
Well, maybe. But I think if there’s one kind of touchy-feely bullshit that most male readers would happily tolerate—would enjoy, even—it’s the kind describing the ambiguity and ambivalence that most of them have probably felt towards their own fathers, at some point in their lives. Besides, it’s not as if the prose in between the Twitter stuff is lacking in laughs and profanity, and I think if Halpern had spent less time condescending to what some imaginary lowest-common-denominator man would want to read, and more time writing the book he wanted to write, everyone would have come out of it better off.