‘Superdad’ author Christopher Shulgan reviews Dave Itzkoff’s new memoir about his relationship with his cocaine-addict father.
Recently my kids and I finished reading the great children’s novel Jacob Two-Two and the Hooded Fang. The next evening I asked what the next choice would be, and my 4-year-old son went to the bedroom bookshelves to deliberate. Some minutes later he set on my lap neither Stuart Little nor Winnie the Pooh, nor any of the other kids’ titles we had. The book he set on my lap was my own. “I want to read your book, Dad,” he said.
I was simultaneously flattered and crushed. This was the first time he’d shared this desire with me. As the author of Superdad: A Memoir of Rebellion, Drugs and Fatherhood, my second book is the painful story of a coming of age that was prompted by my son’s existence, involving my reluctance to quit engaging in the various debauches of youth, including crack cocaine. I did not want to share these sordid details with my son. Not then. Not ever.
I thought of that moment a lot while I was reading Cocaine’s Son, the second memoir by New York Times culture reporter Dave Itzkoff. Gerald, Dave Itzkoff’s father, was a well-heeled Manhattan fur merchant. He also was a cocaine addict whose wealth allowed him to buy cocaine by the pound. The addiction leads David’s mother to issue a divorce ultimatum when David is 8 years old—an ultimatum that is eventually aborted. There are institutionalizations, a move to the suburbs, appeals to a youthful Dave to rescue his father from various flophouses. Dave goes away to Princeton. He gets a job. He’s mad at the father who chose cocaine over him, and wonders whether his father’s absence somehow led to his girl problems. And then the two begin a course of therapy designed to patch things up.
My problems with Cocaine’s Son began with the jacket copy. The author’s blurb details the usual information about the person responsible for this book, then concludes with the fact that Itzkoff “now has a great relationship with his father.” In a memoir that traces the ménage between a son, a father, and cocaine, this revelation removes a reason to read the book. Now that the jacket copy has already given away the ending, we’re left with the beginning. How did they get that great relationship?
This process should be touching. The tragedy of substance abuse can be most affecting when portrayed through the lens of innocence. One of this year’s Oscar nominees for best picture, the indie upstart Winter’s Bone, offers a remarkable portrait of the influence substance abuse can have on the family the addict leaves behind, but the most heartbreaking depiction I’ve ever come across is a one-page section of David Mitchell’s Black Swan Green, when a 13-year-old boy describes his father’s bender thusly: “[I]t’s like this whiny shitty nasty weepy man who isn’t my dad takes my dad over for however long the bender lasts, but only I know that it isn’t him. But it is. But it ain’t. But it is. But it ain’t. Oh, how am I s’posed to know?”
Innocence isn’t what comes out during Itzkoff’s recollection of his and his father’s early relationship. It’s anger—anger untempered by understanding, or even much empathy. Perhaps there’s a reason for this. On top of the coke problem, Itzkoff’s father sounds like a garden-variety, self-absorbed jerk. He stays this way long after he’s wrestled the addiction into some managed form, through therapy and a trip to New Orleans that seems to have bored Dave as much as it does the reader. Eventually, it’s not Dave’s father who changes, but Dave—in the aftermath of his own wedding, he realizes he’s come to like himself. Because his life made him what he is, he wouldn’t change anything in it—including his father. But Dave doesn’t seem certain how this process came about. In fact, he wonders whether his father is right when he says: When you have children of your own, then you’ll know.
That may be true, but since Itzkoff hasn’t passed that waypoint yet, it leaves out an important component of the story—and makes for an unsatisfying conclusion.
Anyone seeking insights into the imprints a parent’s problems leave behind on a kid will go away from this book disappointed. There are some great stories buried in here. Clancy Martin’s 2009 novel, How To Sell, paired a hustler’s drug problem with an insider account of the jewelry business in boom-time Texas. Toward the end of Cocaine’s Son, Itzkoff seems to be attempting something similar, with an exploration of how his father made such a success of the family’s fur business. But these accounts feature none of the reporting élan that elevates Itzkoff’s pieces for The New York Times. Instead they are recounted secondhand through Itzkoff’s bored narration. Again, unsatisfying.
I did learn something from this book, and that’s the fact that ignorance is more dangerous than knowledge. There will come a time when I’ll have to read my own story to my boy. And when I do, I shall hope that it musters more passion than Itzkoff is able to muster in the chronicling of his father’s.
This story first appeared in National Post.