My Father’s Diet by Adrian Nathan West review – sadness on steroids | Fiction


“Oh, nice!” says a father to his son when he learns a package has arrived for him. The son asks what it is. “Well, ha, ha, you’re probably going to think your old man’s lost his damned mind. It’s called Finaplix. Trenbolone acetate. It’s a cattle steroid. They give it to heifers to beef them up before slaughter.”

The father doesn’t have an appointment at an abattoir but with a photographer, who will capture him smothered in baby oil “half-snarling and half-beaming” in black bikini briefs as he poses for the final stage of the Body You Choose competition. At the age of 55, he has become a bodybuilder. If the son thinks he has lost his mind, he keeps it to himself.

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My Father’s Diet, Adrian Nathan West’s debut novel, is slim, sad, comic and sharply observed; it is set among the forlorn malls and soulless suburbs of the American heartland. A fractured family – husband remarried; wife in a relationship; son at college – float in and out of each other’s lives, as cool and listless as the shoppers in those empty malls. The son details, with a dispassionate eye, the changes visible in his father, who suddenly walks back into his estranged son’s life while undertaking an ill-advised search for meaning. In his enthusiasm, he fails to notice his son’s own quiet crisis.

The father cuts quite a figure, “tall, with a splayed, reclining stance that brought prominence to his round belly”. From the first page, he memorably fills the frame. “His large, gold-framed glasses gave his eyes a tint of amber. They rested halfway down an unusually shaped nose like a seahorse’s snout. […] They caused him a lot of trouble, and were as often in his hands as on his face.” It is a lovely, living portrait. We get to know him more intimately still; his changing body, his developing habits, his failed relationships.

The minor characters are eye-catching, too. There is obese Jerry: “His body was pristine like an egg, of an immutable porcelain white untarnished by hair, rolls, or freckles.” There is creeping Kent Minter: “a short, grey-haired figure with a mealy scarlet face, gelid blue eyes, and disconcertingly white teeth”. West, a superb translator by profession – his translation of When We Cease to Understand the World by Benjamín Labatut was shortlisted for the International Booker prize – writes surgically precise prose. The young man notes his father’s verbal quirks and describes his peculiar gait with the detachment of a doctor examining his patient.

When not accompanying his father to and from the gym, the son sits alone in his room and stares at the wall. He dreams of a different life: “My only ambition, from early youth, had been to go somewhere else.” It doesn’t help that his idea of somewhere else is a fiction: the France of trenchcoats and filterless Gitanes. The US small-town atmosphere is well evoked, uncomfortably so: sidewalks that lead nowhere, ugly street signs, food that is either “fried or smothered with cheese” – even the red wine has a “faintly mucosal texture”. It’s a long way from Paris.

Sadly, we never learn the result of the Body You Choose competition. It is hard to imagine it will make much of a difference. In fact, the last we see of the father, he is gorging on junk food while the son looks mournfully on. It is one of many affecting scenes. West’s achievement, in this subtle and delightful book, is to have rendered failure in strikingly handsome terms.

My Father’s Diet by Adrian Nathan West is published by And Other Stories (£10). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at Delivery charges may apply.

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