Take Dad’s caustic wit out of the picture, and Halpern’s material is lazy and second-hand
When 28-year-old writer Justin Halpern split up with his girlfriend, he moved back in with his parents in San Diego, California. His father, a specialist in “nuclear medicine”, did his best to be accommodating. “All I ask is that you pick up your shit so you don’t leave your bedroom looking like it was used for a gang bang.”
Halpern Sr had always had a gift for the grouchy apophthegm. On learning that his son was to try Hollywood screenwriting, he compared the job to “being on a merry-go-round, except the horse you’re riding fucks you”. Following an off-the-cuff comment about the family dog (“You can tell by the dilation of his asshole that he’s going to shit soon”), Justin Halpern started posting his father’s sayings online. Then he started a Twitter page, “Sh*t My Dad Says”, and within a short time literary agents were calling, TV producers inviting him on to their shows, and reporters asking him for interviews.
A book came out, and earlier this month it hit No 1 on the New York Times bestseller list, edging out Laura Bush’s memoir. When Halpern told his father this, the reaction was phlegmatic. “Trust me,” Halpern Sr said of Bush. “She doesn’t give a fuck. She could have you killed.” Sh*t My Dad Says is a phenomenon, and at first sight it’s tempting to go along with the predigested narrative: that of the wry, self-deprecating young media hipster and his folksie, foul-mouthed oldster parent. Justin Halpern, claim his publishers, is “a major new comic voice”.
But he isn’t. Take the dad out of the picture and Halpern’s material is lazy and second-hand. “Without you,” he tells his blog readers, “I’m living in my parents’ house, trying to figure out times when they’re not home so I can masturbate.” The book is spattered with these kinds of references; Halpern clearly thinks that, post-Portnoy and American Pie, there’s still limitless mileage in the Jewish jack-off theme. Installed in Hollywood at his parents’ expense so that he can “write”, he hears a couple having sex next door, and “rubbed one out before dozing off”. The next morning he’s disconcerted to discover that his neighbours are both men. Feeling “sexually insecure”, he tells his dad the whole story, who speaks for the reader in telling him that he really, really doesn’t want to know.
From the sparse handful of details vouchsafed us in this glib, self-engrossed account, Halpern Sr comes across as an extraordinary and heroic figure. Born into extreme rural poverty, he qualifies as a doctor, serves in Vietnam and goes on to become a distinguished cancer specialist, whose lectures are attended by oncologists in their hundreds. If his world view is that of a scatalogically inclined Samuel Beckett, he’s earned the right to it, and his pronouncements are anything but shit, or even Sh*t. When he says, of his son’s friends: “I like them. I don’t think they would fuck your girlfriend, if you had one,” you’re hearing the voice of a man who’s seen too much to bother with the niceties.
By contrast, there’s almost nothing to get to grips with in the son’s story. By his mid-20s he’s worked shifts at Hooters, a catering franchise involving greasy chicken wings and waitresses in high-cut shorts, and decided to “try his hand” at screenwriting. Moving to LA, he finds no takers, a fact that will come as no surprise to readers of this book, though it stokes Halpern’s own neurotically inflated sense of victimhood. Back in San Diego, he tries to move in with his girlfriend and, quelle surprise, she dumps his slacker ass.
At which point he posts the dog’s asshole quote and the multimedia phenomenon kicks in, with Halpern Sr, possibly suspecting that lightning will not strike twice, refusing to take a cent of the proceeds. Earlier this week I glanced at Halpern’s blog and was amazed to learn that his father, years ago, wrote a book about his time in Vietnam, which he, Halpern, has not yet read. Was this indolence, I wondered, or the apprehension that a real understanding of his father’s past might expose the whole Sh*t My Dad Says exercise for what it is?