Tempting Fate: Review of Ralph Cohen’s After Dad

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When their father dies suddenly, three kids are left to struggle into youth and then adulthood. One doesn’t make it very far. Toby the youngest, stayed in a make-believe world after the father’s death until he is jolted hard back into reality during a stay in juvie. There he finds that his make-believe world can’t protect him from the gangsta world of juvenile detention centers.His two sisters, Jenny and Margot, much older than he is when their father dies, eventually find their way to a reasonably happy life. But Margot and Jenny only find this by leaving Southern California, which in After Dad does not include a free pass at the idyllic carefree surfer life. It is the hard penny life with a father who is a WWII vet who cannot seem to adjust to the life after the war. He tries one thing, fails and ends that venture, and moves onto another venture while working and then being laid off. What he dies of remained a mystery to this reader.

Jenny is the smart daughter who idolizes her father. She stumbles through high school only wishing to be left alone. She acquires no friends until after graduation and then her friend, Gina, is a female wrestler who takes paid wrestling jobs in local bars. Jenny for a time goes along with this. She has a boyfriend, Gerald, who to this reader, was Jenny’s boyfriend only when he did not have a better offer or was down on his luck. Jenny’s ticket to life is her happenstance winning of a scholarship to her father’s college.

Margot, the best written sections, though not the best-drawn character (Jenny is), is the older sister who follows in her mother’s footsteps, creating her own dysfunctional family. Eventually, she discovers that her dictatorial ever-present mother-in-law and attached-to-his-mother’s-apron-strings husband (Art) are better left behind. Tyler, her infant son knows this too judging by how happy go lucky he becomes when mother and son leave for the Northwest.

Toby, injures his hand in a collision with a table saw after his father’s death that leaves his left hand minus a thumb and index finger. During his convalescence, he finds and retreats for good into the make-believe world where he is a super hero, a cowboy and just plain invincible. His soon-to-be trade — breaking into houses and stealing stuff, nothing valuable. He takes the stuff for kicks and keeps it in his room. There is one humorous incident. He breaks into the house where his math teacher lives. She’s running around naked, wanting sex and her lover, nicknamed Old Baldy by Toby, only wants to watch the game and you guess right — Toby gets a first row seat to their S&M act. Eventually, after a number of arrests, Toby is sentenced to time in juvie by a judge fed up with Toby’s frequent flyer status in his court. Toby eventually hangs himself, not lasting a week.

This is the tale of a WWII vet that maybe should have gave his buddy’s message to the buddy’s supposed girlfriend and then kept on walking. It was happy marriage for a while then it tanked, likely for lives going nowhere, yet not converging together as artfully as they should have. I don’t have much to say about Ruth. She’s a forgettable character. The genus of the book are the kids, Jenny in particular. Cohen’s telling of a part of WWII where German soldiers near the end of the war dressed in American uniforms attempt to pass themselves off as Americans at the end of the book was the next to best part for me. Then again, I like books about WWII, at least the ETO portion, not so much about the war with Japanese.

Cohen’s writing is polished. Just make sure that when you read the first chapter, you note that the character is a girl. I got about halfway through the chapter and realized that I had it wrong when I thought the character was a boy.

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