YES, Fatherhood is a made-for-the-market book. Its author, Bill Cosby, is the principal character on what is, for the moment, the nation's most popular television show, and he and his publisher are determined to seize that moment. The first printing is 750,000 copies -- that's a Michener-Iacocca number, gentle readers -- and the advertising budget is $300,000. The book is in the stores in ample time for Father's Day, and the safe bet is that all over America lucky fathers will find it in their packages on the third Sunday in June.
They will be lucky. Fatherhood may be a piece of quick manufacture, its pages amply spaced out in hopes of disguising the brevity of its text, but it is vintage Cosby all the same, and vintage Cosby is something to be treasured. Since the sources and substance of his humor have been explored at ample length in other places, suffice it to say here that there is scarcely a funnier person alive and that it is a real treat to have in print a generous batch of Cosby at his best. From time to time he breaks into the standup routine with a lightly delivered bit of wisdom on the book's ostensible subject, but mostly this is characteristic Cosby: self-mocking, barbed yet gentle, richly informed about the nuances of domestic life and intergenerational conflict. In lieu of sober analysis -- which in any event is quite difficult to conduct when one is laughing -- here is a sampling:
*"Before we had children, my wife and I felt educated. She was a college graduate, a child-psychology major with a B-plus average, which means, if you ask her a question about a child's behavior, she will give you eighty-five per cent of the answer. And I was a physical-education major with a child-psychology minor at Temple, which means if you ask me a question about a child's behavior, I will advise you to tell the child to take a lap."
*"When I was a boy, Patti Page made a record called 'That Doggie in the Window.' It swept the country, but it wouldn't sell ten copies today because it couldn't be filmed for a video. A cocker spaniel scratching himself in a pet-store window lacks the drama a video needs, unless the dog were also coming into heat and fifty dancing veterinarians were singing, 'Go, you bitch!' "
*"At once, I sprang into action. I rushed upstairs and kicked open the door to my daughter's bedroom like a man arriving at a fire. With the skin on my face feeling as though it were being pushed away from my skull, and with a vein struggling to free itself from the center of my forehead, the greatest father since Abraham cried the words that Abraham himself must have cried when Isaac brought home his new ram's horn:
" 'Turn that crap down!' "
*"There is something about babyness that brings out the softness in people and makes them want to hug and protect this small thing that moves and dribbles and produces what we poetically call poopoo. Even that becomes precious, for the arrival of a baby coincides with the departure of our minds. My wife and I often summoned the grandparents of our first baby and proudly cried, 'Look! Poopoo!' A statement like this is the greatest single disproof of evolution I know. Would you like a second disproof? Human beings are the only creatures on earth that allow their children to come back home."
WE LAUGH at Cosby but we also laugh with him, because his humor touches the core of our own experience: "Turn that crap down!" is as universal a cry as "Play ball!" and is heard daily throughout the land. Cosby has an extraordinarily keen ear for everyday speech and everyday event, and knows how to put just enough of a comic spin on it so that even as we laugh we know that we are getting a glimpse of the truth. What parent hasn't said, in so many words, "My own wish is not a curse but a simple prayer: I just want the children to get out of the house before we die"? Haven't we all formulated our own versions of Cosby's First Law of Intergenerational Perversity, which reads, "No matter what you tell your child to do, he will always do the opposite," and which has the corollary meaning, "Anything that you like cannot possibly be something your kids like too, so it cannot possibly be hip"?
Every word of it is true: so true at times, it hurts. Being a parent is a hard job -- some think being a kid is even harder -- and as Cosby says, "In spite of the six thousand manuals on child raising in the bookstores, child raising is still a dark continent and no one really knows anything." Thus it is that Cosby wisely softpedals the advice and goes heavy on the humor, knowing, no doubt, that there's not much anyone can do except add to the confusion. Still, the essential message of his book is a sound one, worth contemplating on Father's Day or any other:
"It is no profound revelation to say that fathering has changed greatly since the days when my own father used me for batting practice. However, the baffling behavior of children is exactly the same today as it was when Joseph's brothers peddled him to the Egyptians. And in the face of such constantly baffling behavior, many men have wondered: Just what is a father's role today? . . . The answer, of course, is that no matter how hopeless or copeless a father may be, his role is simply to be there, sharing all the chores with his wife. Let her have the babies; but after that, try to share every job around. Any man today who returns from work, sinks into a chair, and calls for his pipe is a man with an appetite for danger. Actually, changing a diaper takes much less time than waxing a car. A car doesn't spit on your pants, of course, but a baby's book value is considerably higher."
The book value of Fatherhood, it says right there on the dust jacket, is $14.95. That's about the same price as a garish necktie that will retire quietly to the back of the closet, a box of handkerchiefs that will lie unopened in the bottom dresser drawer, a cheap hedge trimmer that will gag and expire on the first half-inch branch it encounters. So go ahead: on June 15, give the old man a few laughs.