Tuesday, December 23, 2008

The Parent Trap:James Lileks' Satiric Jab at Vintage Child-Rearing Lore

by Mark Satola

IT IS AN IMPOLITE and inadvisable thing to make sport of the ignorance of our forebears, unless that ignorance is so spectacular that you just can’t help but point, laugh and make rude but funny remarks.

James Lileks has made himself into a cottage industry of ridicule as the Daedalus of a sprawling, labyrinthine humor Web site (www.lileks.com) and the author of two humor books previous to the new one now under consideration.

His initial outing, The Gallery of Regrettable Food, was an achingly funny reconsideration of the plainly unappetizing vittles that someone thought Americans might like to eat, as culled from the pages of cookbooks and food brochures from the golden age of Commie-hunting. Can I ever thank him enough for “pressed shank braised with smoker’s phlegm?” (“It may take a few tries to get Uncle Hank to hack up enough Lucky sauce, so be patient.”)

His next up at the plate, Interior Desecrations, might have been subtitled “Swing and a Miss.” This time Lileks took on execrable 1970s interior design, but the nightmares in avocado and harvest gold were a little too easy to target; and some of the Naugahyde fantasies he attempted to skewer were interesting enough to resist his barbs.

With Mommy Knows Worst, however, Lileks is back in form. He works best when his source material is so outre as to defy belief, and the advertisements for potty chairs, laxatives, hair-raisingly unsafe car seats and diapers for ten-year-olds who wet the bed certainly fit the bill, as do the bizarre sermons that tout the benefits of sunbathing for newborns, the imperative to boil diapers, the role of the irrelevant dad, and why you probably shouldn’t dose baby with narcotic cough syrup.

Lileks’ technique is to discern the often inadvertent subtexts of the ads and articles he presents, and to riff on them at length. A photo accompanying an anonymous women’s magazine article called “How Good a Family Man is Your Husband?” shows a 1950s fellow in shirtsleeves, slacks and a smallish fedora sitting on the ground, grilling a steak over an open fire while his perma-perfect wife looks on with what seems to be pleasure and admiration.

“Look at this poor bastard,” Lileks writes. “[...]The hat is an afterthought, jammed on his head as some sort of brain-dampening device — good Lord, you can see it in his dead eyes, his slack and soon-to-drool mouth. He’s probably barely able to put two words together, but somewhere in the back of his brain a thought stirs and struggles to be heard: I used to fish, once. I had a life of my own.

“But then she stares extra hard and smiles, and his head is full of that sound you hear when you tune the radio to the place where there ain’t no station....”

It’s a technique that works beautifully in a variety of contexts. The ad for “Babytron, The chair that science built” depicts a modernistic high chair that conspicuously lacks a seat belt. “Too bad science wasn’t around when the kid did a header out of this thing,” Lileks drily notes. “Yes, the patented Babytron technology permits children to slide down the modern, scientific way and clip their chins on the sheet-metal tray the scientific, modern way....”

If it seems a little too easy to find the products and pitches risible (the Doo-Tee Nursery Seat, Zymenol laxative, cans of Kingan’s Reliable ox tongue “packed in agar agar jelly”), Mommy Knows Worst has the advantage of James Lileks’ well-honed comic voice, the skeptical cut-up with the wide, slangy vocabulary that always hits just the right note (“Remember: severed ruminant tongue. Kids ask for it by name.”).

As in Lilek’s previous volumes, the book’s retro, “googie” design goes a long way toward putting his wisenheimer point across. It would have been nice to see art director Kay Schuckhart credited on the title page, rather than down at the bottom of the copyright information.

Originally published in the Cleveland Free Times, October 26, 2005.

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