In The Boys Are Back, his memoir about life as a single dad raising two boys, Simon Carr yanks at every emotion: On one page you’re crying as he loses his talented, loving wife to cancer, and on the next you’re laughing as his 5-year-old son wipes his food-encrusted mouth on the dog, only to be chided by his older brother for using the wrong dog.
And then you brace yourself when Carr decides to make the whole single-dad thing easier by adopting the motto: “Just Say Yes.”
One adventure follows another as Carr and his sons (half brothers, Alexander and Hugo, six years apart) navigate childhood and puberty from the freewheeling, beautiful shores of New Zealand to the more structured streets of Carr’s native England.
Yet as a mother, I felt two additional emotions as I read: I felt inadequate and overbearing.
I cringed every time Carr did a sort of chest beating over how much better off his boys were with his male influence, unencumbered by the horrible limits a woman would have imposed on him and his boys. (His tongue must have been in his cheek, though, as he also confesses to hiring female nannies and au pairs.)
And yet, part of me knows that he’s right: That we parents – moms especially – too often blurt “No!” when our children are just being inquisitive, when they just want to have fun.
Why not let them ride on the roof of the car? (Yes, Carr’s boys rode on the roof on their way down the hill to the turquoise New Zealand waters below.) Why not let a kid ride his bike in the house? (Yes, Carr’s son did this once, and neither ruined the walls nor asked to ride inside again.) Why not let your child cannonball into the hotel bathtub? (Okay, I draw the line here, and demand Carr pay for any damage so the rest of us don’t have to!)
But Carr does seem to be on to something: Why do we so often say no to kids? And does this lead to an unintended consequence? Is this why our boys retreat into the virtual thrill of Xbox games where they can act out their physical aggression in ways we might find more odious than a few bike-tire stains on the carpet?
Carr wrestles with this early on, when he first loses his wife and his son is 5. “I had been aware for many years how naturally we fall into a negative way of talking to boys – more so than to girls. Boys are risky creatures, so those who care for them are continually saying, ‘Don’t run on the wet tiles; don’t hold the knife by the blade; don’t throw the balls at the windows; don’t slide down the bannisters ... put on warmer clothes; don’t wave that stick around, you’ll put someone’s eye out with that stick!’ ”
Carr seeks that middle ground all parents need – between overbearing and overindulgent, between helicopter parent and negligent nitwit. His memoir is as much a story of rearing his children as raising himself and repairing his own shortcomings before they damage the relationships he holds dear. He laughs at himself, pokes fun at everyone around him, and makes us laugh with him.
He neglects, however, to discuss his own work, other than to say briefly that he wrote two bestsellers under different names. How did he balance raising boys and earning a living? Has he left this out because he wanted the story to focus on his sons, or is it a guy thing: Being a dad and being a writer are two different selves?
He eventually becomes a speech writer for the prime minister from 1992 to 1994, and then moves to England with his sons, where he publishes “Gripes of Wrath” and “Sour Gripes,” books about oddball legal cases – frivolous McLawsuits – which made their way through Britain’s legal system despite common sense.
Carr has a keen eye for the outlandish, a witty way with words, and a busy pen. He currently writes political columns for The Independent.
“The Boys Are Back” has been made into a movie starring Clive Owen, which was released in US theaters last month. I haven’t had a chance to see it yet, but I can tell you this: If it’s like the book, it will be a wild, exhilarating ride full of tender moments as a loving dad and his indomitable sons – home alone! – grow into a family.
Elizabeth A. Brown is a freelance writer and mother of three thrill-seeking children of her own.