Pity the wayward dude. His largely self-inflicted torments, as they spool out across the frontier and sometimes the globe, form one of the most durable archetypes of American life and letters. Real-life hymnists of this chest-beating tradition run the gamut from Daniel Boone to Ernest Hemingway to Norman Mailer; for fictional avatars, there’s Natty Bumppo, Holden Caulfield and Nathan Zuckerman. Lately, the dude’s taken on a more self knowing guise, whether it be via the pulp-slacker prose of Chuck Palahniuk or the wisecracking self-mythologizing of Dave Eggers.
Now, with a suitably grandiose flourish, comes Kent Russell, an echt-ironist dude seeking to lay claim to the raw, serious stuff of the American male past. The title of his just-released essay collection comes from an admonitory letter that Daniel Boone wrote to his teenaged son, Israel, when the boy failed to show up for military service during a frontier engagement with Native Americans in Kentucky: “I Am Sorry to Think I Have Raised a Timid Son.” The younger Boone eventually did report for duty, and was buried in a mass grave with other Yankee casualties in 1782.
Nothing close to such filial tragedy appears in Russell’s book of essays, which track the pugnacious male anima across the desolate American interior. Russell writes of high-school friends doing tours of duty in Afghanistan, hockey stars known as much for their brawling as for their prowess on the ice, and the devoted anarcho-libertarian Juggalo following of Insane Clown Posse (the white rap group known for shouting fantasies of violent retribution over the soiled leavings of the American Dream.)
Russell is on a mission to reclaim a masculine spirit of confrontation and conquest. Reviewing his family’s New World forebears — men with “chawbrowed teeth, reliable sidearms, baaaad dispositions,” who’d been “involved in most minor and all major military conflicts” — Russell confesses that this belligerent heritage haunts him “like a phantom limb.” (He also compares its absent presence to “the dark applause of bats leaving a cave” and a “Cheshire grin floating in a void.”)
Russell’s encounter with American masculinity is most directly shaped by his father, an erratically employed attorney whose bantamsized frame brims with violent bravado. (He was evicted from the Miami maternity ward where Kent was born for showing up drunk and blasting “Born in the U.S.A.” out of a boombox.)
Russell intersperses his essays with vignettes from a visit home, during which his dad derides his fledgling writing career as unmanly deceit and preening. The family patriarch tells his son that his life will be “fucking over when you get married” and warns him that should he nevertheless start a family, he shouldn’t let himself “get all pussified.” His dad bristles with what Russell calls “the malign intelligence of male hurt,” which prompts Russell to ponder his own male destiny: “Do I always have to destroy the things I love through the very acts that reveal my love for them?”
The short answer, of course, is “no”— regardless of how badly testosterone may have fucked up your family history. However, one way to court such a destiny is to treat women as distant presences on your tortured male planet, as Russell does. His stories feature women as either petulant nags or sullen, inattentive glyphs. His mother only emerges episodically, to harass his dad and drive badly. His sister, Karen, the renowned author of Swamplandia!, is barely mentioned. Here, meanwhile, is Russell gawking at a pair of women at the Insane Clown Posse gathering:
They couldn’t have been a day over 14 or a biscuit under 225. They wore bikini tops, and the way they slouched — breasts resting on paunches, navels razed to line segments— turned their trunks into parodies of their sullen faces.
The moment, like many similar scenes in Russell’s work and that of his slacker peers, is meant to be played for laughs. But this brand of self-protective irony only makes the rote dismissal of more than half of humanity feel all the more glib and self-serving. So on second thought, don’t pity the wayward dude at all. Pity whomever he marries.