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Armstrong whips up page-turning hilarity in literary debut

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Dadolescence

By Bob Armstrong

Turnstone Press, 240 pages, $19

In his literary debut, about a hapless stay-at-home dad, Winnipeg playwright Bob Armstrong displays ample talents as a comic novelist.

Expanding his 2007 fringe play Tits on a Bull, Armstrong has penned a hilarious portrait of Generation X at mid-life.

The novel is narrated by Bill Angus, a househusband whose career as a graduate student predates his marriage. Imagine American humourist Dave Barry as a better-read, Morrissey-listening Winnipegger and you've just about got Bill.

Each morning, after sending off his wife, Julie, and their 12-year-old son, Sean, Bill turns his attention to the daily task of being an overeducated underachiever.

He prefers making lengthy to-do lists, prioritizing trips to the dry cleaner and near obsessive muffin-making over finishing his dissertation.

Despite his professional shortcomings, Bill and his family are cheerful. But when Julie's MBA-wielding ex-boyfriend, Blake, returns to Winnipeg, and the two families meet at Blake's Wellington Crescent home, Bill begins to question his adequacy as a father and husband.

He thinks back to how he met Julie soon after her relationship with Blake had soured.

"As a suitor I fulfilled only the minimum requirement of an educated middle-class woman," Bill recalls.

"I'm a spastic dancer, a sloppy handyman and I have a weak chin. My only significant period of gainful employment was a year of temping at Thames Life in London, Ontario. At best, I was a non-incarcerated male without any addictions stronger than coffee. But I was, significantly, not Blake Morgan."

The narrator's droll, self-deprecating musings are characteristic of Dadolescence. Armstrong deploys his talents as a playwright, specifically a strong ear for monologue, to wonderful effect throughout the book.

Ultimately, Blake's brief entrance onto the scene sets Bill upon his dissertation with renewed energy. Jettisoning his old thesis, Bill looks to his neighbours Mark and Dave for a new subject: the tribe of the stay-at-home dad.

What follows is a series of outings to Home Depot, dad-chaperoned class trips, and fishing retreats. Soon Bill turns from anthropologist to rogue life coach, forcing his friends to confront the fantasies they've concocted to cope with their economic dislocation.

Mark, with his phantom consulting clients, and Dave, with his obsessive home renovations, stand in for a generation of men less affluent than their own fathers navigating fatherhood after the loss of their status as breadwinners.

Through it all, Armstrong's characters never cease to amuse. When Bill suspects that Julie's weekend business trip maybe a ruse for an ongoing affair with a more eligible, employed man, his attempts to foil their plans turn to folly.

By way of attempting to help his friends losing their illusions, Bill takes Mark and Dave on a fishing trip in search of a canoe-going nuclear physicist.

The result is pure, page-turning hilarity -- and, for Bill, a little bit of enlightenment.

Ria Julien is a Winnipeg writer based in New York.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 10, 2011 J8

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