April 03, 2004

The Tongue in the Sink, by Dennis Fried, Ph.D.

Fair warning--this is another book I read only because I was offered a free review copy.

Subtitled "The Harrowing Adventures of a Baby Boomer Childhood," this book is further labeled, "Warning: This book contains heavy doses of humor. Do not read while driving or operating heavy equipment. Standard adult dose is one chapter per day. In case of overdose, discontinue reading immediately, lie quietly, and watch the news." I suspect that this is adequately expresses how funny Fried wishes he were; alas, it's an overestimate.

The first chapter is particularly bad; in it, Fried explains how he moved to Florida, and what he found there. It's got all the usual tired digs about development and elderly drivers, and is punctuated with lots of little gags that mostly fall flat. It short, it's trying far too hard to be funny, and not managing.

The remaining chapters are much better, and include many anecdotes of Fried's childhood that are genuinely funny, if not quite the laugh riot the cover bids you expect. And, unsurprisingly, the funniest bits are those in which Fried stops trying to be a comic and just tells the story. I enjoyed hearing about his dog Sardo, and the varied population of his hometown, the more so as he grew up in a time and place that I know little about (Upstate New York, in the 1950's).

I suppose what fascinates me the most about the book is the moral dimension, which is almost completely lacking. There are a handful of passages infused with PC-piety on animal rights and the environment, but in all of the tales of his youthful exploits there's no sense of shame or contrition or sheepishness, but only the concern then (and pleasure now) that he didn't get caught at the time. He relates an incident concerning one of his childhood friends, who inadvertently ate some candy after giving up candy for Lent. The friend was absolutely mortified about it. Fried comforts him, but clearly doesn't understand the problem.

Now I'm not looking for heavy-handed moralizing; it's meant to be funny, after all. But somehow Garrison Keillor manages to acknowledge his own moral frailty without ceasing to be funny. Fried's parents were Jewish, so he tells us, but were apparently not particularly observant, and left him to make up his own mind about religion; which is to say he got no religious instruction whatsoever. Keillor, on the other hand, was raised in the Church. Fried's book has no real moral dimension; Keillor's books, on the other hand, do. It makes you wonder.

So anyway, I read the book, and enjoyed most of it--except for the first chapter--well enough, but I didn't have to pay for it. Would I have paid money for it? Well, honestly, I probably wouldn't even be looking in that part of the bookstore. But if someone called it to my attention, and I leafed through it....well, probably I would have left it in the store. Still, if you have a particular interest in mid-1950's Americana you might take a look.

Update: Given Ian's comment (see the comments sections), I want to make it clear that I'm not accusing Fried of being a man of no morals. It's his book I'm talking about, and it's what he chose to put in it, and what he chose to leave out, that I find interesting. Posted by Will Duquette at April 3, 2004 03:33 PM

Ian Hamet said:

Come now, you can't mean this.

Would you say that I have "no real moral dimension?" After all, I "got no religious instruction whatsoever" (the result of having a Lutheran father and Catholic mother — agnostic upbringing was a truce).

Also, I have known plenty of amoral and immoral people who received ample religious instruction in their childhoods.

I am sorry, but I dispute the implication that religion and morality are equivalent and inseparable. There are plenty of moral people who are without religion, and history provides example after brutal example of religious people who were immoral.

This one example does not make me wonder.

Will Duquette said:

Forgive me, Ian; I should either have left the moral maunderings out, or expanded them with further examples from Fried's book, and written it up better. I've got about half-a-cold, which is why there hadn't been any serious posts since Wednesday, and I'm still not completely with it.

Anyway, your comments are completely to the point, and deserve a better answer than I can provide at the moment. You're absolutely right--many kids raised in a religious family lack any kind of moral compass, and many kids raised without religious instruction possess one, and I did not mean to imply anything different. However, formal moral instruction is usually closely tied to religious instruction, and it's reasonable to think that in some families in which religious instruction has been abandoned, that formal moral instruction has also been abandoned.

But also note that I didn't say--at least, I didn't mean to say--that Fried lacks a moral compass, but rather that his book lacked a moral dimension, except for vaguely progressive sorts of platitudes. And given his upbringing, and his status as one of the vanguard of the Boomer generation, I found that interesting.