Reading Kent Russell’s I Am Sorry to Think I Have Raised a Timid Son, I kept thinking of one thing: the old military commercials where some kid – usually black or Hispanic – announces that he’s enlisting, and he’s up against some vague protests before the parent accepts the kid’s decision. I think about those commercials because Russell writes about his father – a war vet – who discourages him from enlisting. In the commercials, the parents, though initially hesitant, are happy and proud that their kid is enlisting. In reality, I can’t imagine how many parents would be filled with dread and terror at the thought of their son or daughter going off to war – given just how corrupt and damaging the last two or three wars were to this country and our brave veterans.
But Russell’s Timid Son isn’t an anti-war screed or polemic. Instead, it’s a look at masculinity and how our culture approaches ideas of manhood. The essays collected take Russell on various journeys, some emotional some physical to places that act as Petri dishes on masculinity. He writes of his adolescence, growing up around different models of manliness and masculinity – the three main models of manhood in his life are his father, grandfather, and a childhood friend, an Iraq war vet. In comparison to these guys, Russell is positively effete with his sensitive scribbling, but he’s an observant and articulate commentator on how concepts of masculinity and gender play out in the real world, where men, who are taught to be stoic and resilient, have feelings of fear, doubt, and regret.
The title refers to a quote from legendary frontiersman, Daniel Boone, who allegedly said the line at his son’s funeral. Boone was reportedly unhappy with his son who did not enlist. Boone is a fitting figure to reference in a book on masculinity because the man is a myth of masculinity and ruggedness. But as Russell’s book highlights, there’s more complexity to masculinity, even if its tempting to be reductive. The most notable examples in the book are the Juggalos (fans of the rap group, the Insane Clown Posse) and a gentleman from Wisconsin who claims to have developed an immunity to venomous snake bites. In both instances it would be very easy to be condescending and insulting – the Juggalos, in particular, are often derided as poor white trash, while the snake charmer from Wisconsin could simply be seen as a kook. But Russell doesn’t stoop down to bullying or teasing: instead, he writes about the Juggalos with a measure of respect. He doesn’t romanticize the subculture, nor does he pretend that the Juggalos are misunderstood or unappreciated connoisseurs of alternative culture; instead he reports on the phenomenon with a journalist’s eye and with a solid measure of compassion. He doesn’t dismiss the seamier aspects masculinity and our culture with high-minded snobbishness.
The same level of fairness goes into how he writes about his father, as well. The relationship between Russell and his dad could’ve been easily whittled down to a grizzled, taciturn, macho dick who can’t relate to his dad. But Russell isn’t interested in facile, one-sided characterizations, and instead, Russell’s father is someone that has moments of sensitivity, wit, and compassion. It’s clear through the work, that his father has had a major impact on his life and his outlook on what being a man means. But this isn’t a weepy “daddy never loved me” tome. Russell indulges in fanciful wordplay, but he doesn’t indulge in self-pity. Instead, he revels in the eccentric and prickly relationship that he shares with his dad.
And through it all, Russell remains a funny and vital voice. Even when the stories take dark turns – his passages about his best friend’s struggles with PTSD are particularly disturbing – Russell’s smart voice shines through. He doesn’t belittle the more serious parts of his story with humor – instead he enhances the reader’s empathy and interest with it.
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