Review: Shader by Daniel Nester

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Author Daniel Nester latest book Shader is a memoir about growing up, over and over again, maybe in perpetuity. It’s about being a record-collecting nerd in the 1980s, and the destiny deciding dangers of lawnmowers and poets who work at carwashes and how sex is usually tragic and hilarious when you’re young. It’s also a really funny book about death, anger, and never feeling like you belong, ever, especially in the place and with the people who raised you. And the later realization that everyone feels that way too. …but seriously, funny book. It’ll also cut you close to the bone when you least expect it to. The event that triggers the author’s big look back is the recent death of his estranged father Mike Nester. Nester’s fascinating and frustrating father hangs over the entire book like some Col. Kurtz type of wraith, becoming even more strange and mythic in his absence. His presence pervades the work even after he abandons the author and his family halfway through the book. Mostly because the damaging impact of his fathering is felt in every misstep his son takes later when tasked with trying to raise himself.

But again, this book is funny as hell. The humor here elevates what could otherwise devolve into a flat dirge of a rough coming of age peppered with justifiable anger at a failed patriarch. This never happens as you read Shader. Nester makes it a point to constantly keep himself in check, never wallowing and always looking at things through the eyes of others whenever possible. Even his father’s.

The title Shader, (rendered in a very 80s, very opening for Dokken at the state fair font for the cover) refers to a self-applied handle that residents of the working class town of Maple Shade New Jersey have taken to using. Most of the story takes place here, with the author, learning about his ever shifting role in the grand cosmos by proxy in South Jersey. There are a few other locations in the book but none make more of an impression than Tucson Arizona. Seeing as Tucson is actually the place where I did a lot of my own growing up it intrigued me to see an East coaster’s take on it. Equally intriguing was my view of Nester as an east coaster at all, knowing that I spent the first 10 years of my life mostly in Pennsylvania.

But that’s another thing that works with Shader, as much as it’s about the particular peculiarities and nuances of Nester’s hometown it’s also about the idea of the “home town.” Anyone who’s ever moved away from the region that they hail from knows the ambivalence you feel toward the spot that made you what you are. Hell, people who put down roots in their hometowns probably feel it even deeper. But Nester nails the odd sense, distinct to those who leave and come back occasionally, of obsession and perpetual mystery about the place you should already know more about than anywhere else. How can there always seem to be more to learn about where you grew up? Or the people you grew up with? Why is it endlessly imperative that we ask our relatives and old school friends about the same old incidents? Are we trying to learn something new? To study every inch of our personal Zapruder films in hopes to finally reach that aha moment that disproves the magic bullet theories which flimsily tried to explain the weirdness of our childhoods? Or do we just want to relive those old days because even when they were the worst of times, seeing as we had more life ahead of us than ever, fittingly, we never felt more alive?

However, there’s one aspect of Shader which some readers might not be able to relate to directly and is one of its most powerful features; the real darkness and brokenness to Nester’s relationship with his father. The man was a truck driver with a genius IQ who encouraged free thinking and philosophical study in his children; he also may have harbored Nazi sympathies and definitely like many fathers of his or any time had some fucked up views on women that their sons would have to discard in order to avoid their father’s fates.

What I liked most about all this is that despite the book revolving around the death of his admittedly damaged but charismatic father, there is a careful effort at making his mother and his sister and their views on all topics pertinent just as compelling and important as his or his father’s own. It’s a human flaw to always be more interested in what we don’t have, hence the popularity of stories revolving around problems with the father and/or absent fathers. But by the end of Shader Nester comes round to focusing instead on what he does have: a mother who loved him and raised him on her own as best she could; and a family of his own which represent a chance to be the father to his own children that he never had himself. The author seems to understand, on both counts, that not everyone can say the same.

You can find Shader here.

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