cover image Ambivalence


John Donatich. St. Martin's Press, $23.95 (240pp) ISBN 978-0-312-32653-1

Part memoir, part essay, Donatich's account of contemporary marriage and fatherhood will resonate with readers who find Robert Bly too glib and Martin Amis too ironic; his book fairly bristles with skeptical intelligence, self-deprecating humor and careful observation of social habits. Conceived during his wife's first pregnancy-""a period of wondering about what I was about to become""-Donatich's book opens with a rousing start in which the author recounts how he lost his job as the publisher of Basic Books eight hours after his first child was born. Anyone who has ever been downsized will appreciate his cutting descriptions of the executive rehabilitation program that he subsequently endured: a place where displaced alpha males consoled themselves with needless posturing while searching for their next position. The rest of the book is more uneven. The meandering narrative structure allows Donatich to delve into such diverse subjects as his sexual initiation, his conflicting feelings about his wife's depression, his anxiety about becoming a father, the annoyance of using a condom when his wife goes off the pill, his status as the son of an immigrant, country versus city living, the motives behind America's consumerism and the politics of playing the accordion. Generally, the more personal the topic the more Donatich's descriptions prove revelatory and enlightening. The current director of Yale University Press, Donatich concludes that his own life has been built on ambivalence, which, he thinks, is not such a bad thing considering the brutal effects of arrogance, absolutes and empire. ""Ambivalence embraces compromise, and the effect is as enduring as it is flexible. The same applies to marriage,"" he writes. The memoirist may seem too self-absorbed or misanthropic for some, but the essayist has crafted a crackling ode to the ambivalence experienced by an educated man as he makes his way through ""the various stages of his life: as a son, as a student, as an athlete, as a career man, lover, husband, father.""