I am a parenting author and blogger. When I am sent pitches to review books with 'Father' or 'Daddy' in the title, I develop certain preconceived notions: there will be anecdotes about goofy parenting moments; stories of cute babies doing cute things; perhaps a touching passage about being thankful for one's competent and loving wife.
Mostly, those books tread on familiar and well trampled territory.
Not so with Kirk Millson's "9,000 Miles of Fatherhood - surviving crooked cops, Mexican moonshine and teen-age angst on a journey to the End of the road"
As the late Roger Ebert was fond of writing: "It's not what a movie is about, but rather how it is about it."
This story of a father and son piling into a 1974 Dart with the intention of driving from Salt Lake City to Panama could have been a simple tale of travel and sightseeing. It could have been a story of father/son bonding. It is, as a skeleton, both those things.
But what pulls the reader relentlessly from page to page is a story of self-discovery, and the desire to recover a broken relationship.
"I was an unemployed middle-aged man in a beater car with a kid I didn't know how to relate to, and the road ahead, so recently shimmering with promise, just seemed long."
Any parent - father or mother - will relate instantly to Millson's feelings of helplessness, frustration, and self-doubt.
Milsson's personal profile before pulling out of his driveway is a template for numerous parents: a professional and financial rut, a teenager with whom communication has been reduced to grunts and nods, and a family who is far from receiving your best side of humanity.
This is a trip one father hopes will return both him and his son in better condition than when they left.
Though it is a human story first and foremost, this book does have elements of a great thriller:
"With a look of scorn, he reached down and yanked open a drawer. Out came an assortment of junk - broken ballpoint pens, a tangled ball of plastic coated wire, the chipped black receiver from a phone...When he laid down a battered pistol with a broken grip, he stared at me with eyebrows raised."
This is only one dark corner of a story which includes drunks, robbers, crooked authorities, hookers, rushing rivers, wild pigs and a bus wavering near a precipice.
But the real ride is an emotional one.
Even when his relationship with his son, as well as the trip itself, seems to be on the upswing, Millson wonders if this is all just an exercise in delaying facing reality. Even after this great adventure ends, he will still be a newspaper editor on a fixed income and the late shift, reminded by his son at one point during the trip he is not qualified to be much more.
While the locations may be exotic (Mexico, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, etc.), the lessons are no more foreign than those we struggle to learn in our own kitchens, dens and living rooms.
As the heat, their tight budget, and the smarmy no-tell motels being to exacerbate Millson, his son bears the brunt of his short fuse and frustrations. A Central American version of a swear jar seems to not only rectify the situation, but reminds this father how often our children absorb the consequences of our short fuses simply by virtue of living life alongside us.
Peter, Millson's 13-year-old son, is tasked with keeping up with his school work, lest the trip be brought to a sudden halt. Intense on-the-road sessions of Spanish and algebra are fortified with a physical regime of calisthenics. However, the threat of an abrupt return to Utah should the teen fall behind academically, is an empty one. A trip home would either leave the father alone on the road, or force him to return to the life he left behind - Millson finds neither option palatable.
This is one of the many honest secrets and emotions Millson shares with the reader, but keeps from his son.
Through their shared fears, their exasperations with each other, and their celebrations of new discoveries, each traveller learns more and more about themselves as well as their companion.
There is a touching scene in which Millson watches his son in the Dart's rear view mirror. The sight triggers a memory of the same child as a toddler smiling from the back seat as he spits out his pacifier.
They never stop being our babies.
No matter how much they frustrate us, it is never too difficult to love them again.
Millson is comfortable displaying his misjudgments and his parental warts; that is the real charm of this book.
This story is touching in the way many 'fatherhood' books are not.
It is not about 'How to raise a good son.' or 'How crazy is it that now I drive a van'. It's about being human. About how difficult it can be to connect with your child. About the work it takes to make an emotional connection.
Peter is 24 now. We'll have to wait for his book to really understand his secrets from that journey.
But Kirk Millson's lesson was clear:
"...A father doesn't have to be smart or talented or otherwise remarkable to have a huge impact on a kid's life; he just has to stay involved. For boys of a certain age, a bad day with their Dad is better than a good day without him."
Those 9,000 miles were worth every penny.
"9,000 Miles of Fatherhood - surviving crooked cops, Mexican moonshine and teen-age angst on a journey to the End of the road" will be released April 8th through Amazon and Barnes & Noble. For information, and pre-orders, visit www.KirkMillson.com.