Next Stop, Middle-Aged Fatherhood

By Cyndie Zikmund

March 2, 2021

Next Stop, Middle-Aged Fatherhood

Delusions of Grandeur: American Essays by Joey Franklin

“Certainly, I am as inclined as anyone to run away from uncomfortable truths, but for too long, delusional thinking has been killing us softly, one narcissistic fairy tale at a time.”

Joey Franklin reveals this startling observation in the introduction to Delusions of Grandeur, ten reflective essays with expansive endnotes and sources. Franklin, the author of another University of Nebraska collection, My Wife Wants You to Know I’m Happily Married, is the father of three boys and is about to turn forty. He has challenges teaching his children how to become good men while he struggles with more global concerns such as social injustice, the meaning of life, and the American mythologies we impart to our children. In the book’s first essay, “Toy Soldiers,” Franklin poses an interesting premise.

Imagine, for instance, if my boys opened a new pack of little green army men, and along with the grenade-throwing captain, the brave scout, the determined rifle man, and that obedient private there were also shell-shocked troops curled up in the fetal position, soldiers laid in hospital beds nursing amputations, maybe a soldier back home waiting on the phone with the VA, one in civilian clothes trying to find work and struggling to relate to his family, one contemplating a bottle of pills, or the end of his rifle.

Growing up during the Vietnam War, I feared for my brother, friends, and classmates who faced the threat of being drafted. Some veterans had already returned home to a country that despised them, as if the recruits had caused the conflict themselves. The aftermaths of war are ugly, and Franklin rightly wants these real outcomes to be questioned as part of our culture’s children’s games that glorify war.  

Franklin demonstrates his gift of storytelling when he switches writing styles, and adopts from a more lyrical approach in an essay about an embarrassed boy who loved a fat girl in the brief essay “Girl Fight.” Or, despised her, depending on the moment. As painful as first loves often are, Franklin employs the use of a refrain to lighten the mood, “we got to talking about girls, as boys do,” “my secret had gotten out that day, as secrets do,” “I knew that insult would hang in the air, as insults do.” This technique conjures an image of a storytelling circle where the seated listeners chime in during the chorus. Placement of this essay about Franklin’s own childhood is juxtaposed against his concerns for how his boys are being influenced, creating a nostalgic mood for simpler times and lost innocence.

In the essay “Good Enough,” Franklin uses a numbered form to present a collage of ideas unified by their exploration of “good” as it pertains to the English language, human behavior, religious pursuits, biases, and personal development. Using the revelatory notion that a Good Samaritan isn’t good based on action alone, but for having stopped to help in the first place, Franklin supposes that being good is not solely defined by action but includes motivation. On good grammar, Franklin tells us that the rules of language should be considered a baseline for creativity and expansion.

And the artists who’ve created our finest works of literature figured out long ago what our contemporary linguists are only, in this century, finally emphasizing–that good language makes its own rules. Sure, there are foundational principles—essential grammars that make language recognizable and reproducible—but these are merely foundations to build on.

And, on good parenting, Franklin admits to looking like a good example versus actually being one.

I’m pushing forty now, which means I should have all kinds of insight and maturity about oversimplified notions of goodness, but, as it is, the universe has blessed me with children, which is another way of saying the universe isn’t done proving I’m a hypocrite.

Franklin later admits impatience for his boys to develop their own “ethical backbones.” After wishing them to grow up in a hurry, he realizes that time will allow the process to happen with or without, and despite his meddling.

By the fourth essay in the book, I realized, this was not simply a meditation on uncomfortable truths and mythic delusions. It was also, at times, an insightful demonstration of the craft of writing personal essays, experimenting with form, tone, and structure, and providing guideposts for other writers when crafting their work artistically. Many essays open with a compelling scene followed by background information before the heart of the story appears. The essays often revisit the initial scene after Franklin creates or fashions a larger context and conveys a meaningful, sometimes unexpected message.

At the conclusion of each essay, I felt satisfied, even enlightened, as when a teacher shares a piece of hard-earned wisdom. For instance, I’ll never think about homelessness in the same way after reading Franklin’s essay, “Not in My Backyard.” In it, a homeless couple is brought to life with faces and names as he realizes how difficult it is for them to learn basic urban survival skills, that is, if they had a home, to clean it, take the trash out, make dinner. About a man who lives just outside his backyard, Franklin asks, “Were we anything more than just another house of ‘haves’ laughing on the other side of the fence?”

Midway through the book, the significance of race on America’s often delusion-minded culture becomes clear in “White Trash.” Franklin explores the American Dream of upward class mobility available only to those with the access and connections to make the climb.

The dilemma reveals a troubling contradiction—the American Dream promises that you and I can, through hard work and determination, improve our social standing; but then it simultaneously reassures us that our social standing doesn’t matter in the first place. The truth, of course, is that all of us are, to a greater or lesser extent at the mercy of where we came from, who are parents were, and what society thinks those facts say about our potential. . . . The American economy has always left someone behind, and the rest of us benefit from the notion that the poor have only themselves to blame.

Franklin transports us from his poor upbringing when his mother illegally dumped their weekly trash in an office dumpster to her current well-appointed home near Salt Lake City with an Impressionist style cityscape hanging above the fireplace. At first glance, the painting is a tribute to the immigrant’s dream of success in America. Upon closer inspection, a homeless camp is tucked into the shrubbery, the truth in plain sight. But you have to look closely to see it. While some prosper, others nearby face a daily struggle to survive.

Franklin tackles other moving topics with candid personal narrative in Delusions of Grandeur. These include God, nakedness (“The Full Montaigne”), white privilege, revelatory experiences he had as a Mormon missionary, and social injustice. Franklin’s prose is accessible and evocative. One fine example is the essay, composed in fragments, about Trayvon Martin, “Worry Lines.”

In it, Franklin observes the acute differences of raising a Black son in America versus raising a white son. It starts with Nolan, Franklin’s middle child, questioning the worry lines on his father’s face. The story segues to someone else’s son, seventeen-year-old Trayvon Martin killed while walking home from a convenience store in the rain, wearing a hoodie. The white man who shot him worried Martin was a threat. Martin’s parents had worried about their son, too. Advice they gave about racial confrontations was to “eliminate yourself from the equation.” Possible ways include backing down, humbling, appeasing, fleeing. By alternating Trayvon’s story and Franklin’s story of raising three boys, the author effectively captures the disparity in the two circumstances and the different scales of worry.

The book represents the struggle of humankind across many miles and varied cultures, from a college student donating blood plasma in Ohio to the “joyful” aftermath of a tsunami in Japan, which gave one impacted family unexpected optimism. Franklin’s keen powers of observation uncover parallels in his life, perhaps in all of our lives, opening deep layers of meaning and connection. Still, at the core is the heartfelt conflicts of a man approaching middle-age, trying to be a good father in twenty-first century America.

 

Delusions of Grandeur: American Essays by Joey Franklin

University of Nebraska Press
 $19.95 | Buy Now

 

ZikmundCyndie Zikmund’s essays have been published in The Magnolia ReviewThe Literary Traveler, and upcoming issues of Under the Gum Tree, and Pink Panther Magazine. She served as Creative Nonfiction Editor for Qu Literary Magazine in 2018-19 and is currently a contributing writer for Southern Review of Books. Cyndie has an MFA from Queens University of Charlotte and is currently finishing work on her memoir, Back Tomorrow: From the Rockies to Silicon Valley.

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