I Am Sorry to Think I Have Raised a Timid Son by Kent Russell
Publisher: Knopf, March 2015
Genre: Nonfiction; Memoir
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"...I have come to fetishize opaque brutes. Adventurers, gunfighters, all the dumb rollicking killers. Dudes for whom torment and doubt are inconceivable (or at least incommunicable). Homer's sublime dolts, gloved in blood and not wanting to talk about it."
Recently, Karen Russell's brother Kent Russell came out with a book that was supposedly about hyper-masculinity in America. In the brilliantly named I Am Sorry to Think I Have Raised a Timid Son, Russell writes about his time spent with juggalos, a man who immunizes himself to snake venom, Amish baseball players, a survivalist, and more. Sounds exactly like my kind of book, right? He also intersperses this with writing about his relationship with his father. And the truth about this book is that he really just wanted to write about his dad.
My dad died due to complications with leukemia when I was 11. At 22, I had a father for half of my life. The distance between now and that part of my life continues to grow bigger and bigger.
To be clear, I'm used to reading about dads. I realize that having a dad is a very typical part of a majority of people's lives. I am not thin skinned. I'm way more comfortable with the fact that I don't have a dad than you are reading this. This book really made me think about my distance from what's thought of as the typical American life, and perhaps Kent Russell's blinding closeness to it.
I don't think that writing what you know is a bad thing. It's a great thing. I do think, though, that Russell had trouble getting close to his subjects because he wanted to write about his dad. Maybe he was looking for his dad, or what drives his dad, everywhere. It felt like I was viewing the juggalos, the survivalists, the "extreme" men, from behind a pane of glass. I could see them and sometimes they were sad or exciting, but I couldn’t touch them. Russell either only hung out with them for a short time or he interacted with them really awkwardly. I remember at one point he touches an Amish man’s shirt unannounced after he’s known him for less than an hour. Who just touches people??
If he wanted to write about his dad and his family, he should have. Russell is an interesting character and a really good writer. He's often really funny, and I loved his descriptions of Florida. It's just that the essays he wrote weren’t very connected. They were just kind of inserted next to each other: something about his dad next to something about some manly guy. And the last essay felt especially disjointed. It was clear that he had probably written it for something else. It's when he's writing about his family that he touches on some interesting things.
"God. The first time you see your old man shamed? The beginning of the end right there. He can no longer beat up everything. He stops seeming flush with the blood of the world. After that moment, he becomes to you this chastened, overextended empire of a man. Self-mythology be damned, he has obviously wrapped up his era of misadventure. He will recede. The trouble he stirred up will follow him home."
I never got this moment of seeing your father as a person who can fall. I know that most do. I was too young to have this moment, and parents can be amazing actors in an elaborate play staged and written just for children. Even when my dad was diagnosed with cancer, I didn't get it. When he went out of remission after being in it for almost a year, I still didn't get it. I don't even think I really got it when I was told that his brain was bleeding out. Because I was too young to process any of it, I didn't understand that my father COULD "recede."
Russell and I are both wrapped up in two different fantasies of our fathers. He idolizes his father, but he has also been let down by him and had to face the fact that he is a flawed character. But where Russell gets stuck is in using that as part of his idolization. His often-troubling father becomes a more interesting and tragic character. His father is presented to him, but he still can perceive him however he chooses.
My impression of my father is how I perceived him as a child. I've pieced together fragments of him as a real human adult through what I've heard from family and reflecting on my memories with a more mature eye. But I still will never know how we would have interacted as two people. I'm stuck, because a lot of my time is spent fantasizing about me showing him bands I like and showing him all of the music available on the internet. It's as if he had just disappeared from reality for years then suddenly is back and ready to live, and I'm there to catch him up on what he missed. I have the opportunity to create my own image of him, but it's still idolization. It's delusional, just in a different way.
This is why I have a problem with Russell's book. I can't understand all of the distance when time is too short for it. I can't understand continuing to idolize and craft images when you have the opportunity to embrace the reality. I understand that it's hard to break down those mental structures, but to me it seems so, so important.
I know I probably don't get it entirely. I know there is a lot of anger-love in father son relationships that I haven't had the opportunity to understand for several different reasons. But I do still wish that Russell could get more out of his own head in order to explore the lives and personalities of all of these men that he got to interact with. Hyper-masculinity doesn't get the analysis it really needs. There's so much to learn about people and there's so little time.