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In his new memoir, Toronto’s Christopher Shulgan, a magazine writer whose first book, The Soviet Ambassador, was shortlisted for the B.C. National Book Award for Non-fiction, chronicles his descent into crack addiction (with a side order of binge-drinking) and how his addiction intersected with his becoming a parent. It’s a stirring, thoughtful account, but it doesn’t quite live up to its potential.
Shulgan, who had previously had a problem with cocaine and crack (and whose marriage hinged on his continued recovery), greets the news of his incipient parenthood with an internal explosion of self-doubt and dread: “The impending birth of my son,” he writes, “loomed for me like a kind of death.” That metaphysical torment – which I suspect most prospective fathers can relate to, although they don’t typically discuss it – serves as both a catalyst for his drug use and, initially at least, a limitation upon it. Employing an addict’s innate ability to bargain, he sets clear boundaries for himself – he’ll only smoke crack until the baby comes; he’ll never smoke crack in the house, etc. – each of which he inevitably transgresses.
True to the form of the substance abuse memoir, Shulgan hits a crisis point, which puts his infant son at risk. His ensuing recovery and personal growth unfold largely as readers of this genre would expect.
Superdad is well written and well paced. Shulgan has a strong, appealing narrative voice and a keen eye. (I’m reasonably confident that, based on Shulgan’s descriptions alone, I could track down a Toronto crack neighbourhood, score rock without being unduly vic’d, and make a serviceable crack pipe.) It’s a good read, and definitely satisfies, but the reader comes away with the sense that there are depths Shulgan was reluctant to explore.
It’s hard to fault a writer for not wanting to expose all of himself to the reading public (or to his intimates), and Superdad is refreshingly free of both histrionics and bald sentimentality. But the reader is left with a niggling suspicion that there is more to the story.
Advance praise for Superdad:
“Infuriating, moving, and terrifying, Superdad is a journey into the dark heart of self-destructive hypermasculinty and out the other side into a? kind of uneasy truce between the idea of ‘father’ and ‘real man.’ As a writer, I found myself awed by Shulgan’s tale-teller’s facility; as a dad, I found myself wanting to smack him until he stopped destroying his family and his life. Superdad is a brave memoir that humanizes the self-immolating urge of the crack addict.”
?Cory Doctorow, author of For the Win and co-editor of Boing Boing
“Christopher Shulgan pulls off a cool sort of alchemy; Superdad is an illuminating book about delusion, a wise book about idiocy, a kind-hearted book about acting like a jerk. And then on top of all that, the man makes writing look easy.”
?Shaughnessy Bishop-Stall, author of Down to This and Ghosted
“Take the assumptions you have about fatherhood and addiction, and the kind of simpering memoirs such issues cook up, and, please, fly the works off the nearest dock. Superdad is a relief. At once hilarious and heartbreaking, Shulgan’s writing makes room for something else. Something greater. Trust me, you’ve been looking for this one.”
?Ryan Knighton, author of Cockeyed and C’mon Papa
Praise for The Solviet Ambassador:
“A well-researched and thoughtful biography.” ? The Globe and Mail (on The Soviet Ambassador)
“A fascinating story of why even insiders lost faith in the Soviet system?and how Canada played its part. Christopher Shulgan illuminates the key friendship between Yakovlev, the Soviet ambassador in Ottawa, and Mikhail Gorbachev, and shows how it contributed to the huge changes in Russia in the 1980s.”
?Margaret MacMillan, author of Paris 1919 and Nixon and Mao