I bought Brotherly Love, a discounted, yet signed, copy from the remaindered section of the bookstore where I used to work. At the time I was enamored by Pete Dexter, whose books Train and Paris Trout I had recently read. Both of those books are spare and menacing, at times brutally violent, but done in a masterful way. Brotherly Love is like those books, but to call the book spare is an understatement. Dexter takes his time – most of the book, really – fleshing out the main characters, cousins Peter and Michael Flood from a Philadelphia gangster family. As the plot slowly develops – or comes to a boil, one might say – it becomes clear that Peter wants out. But of course, Michael and his band of hoods keep dragging him back in. In Brotherly Love, Dexter doesn’t quite plumb the emotional depths of his characters as he does so effectively in Paris Trout and Train, and the reader is left with a book that feels empty and characters that feel doomed from page one.
The title of Kent Russell’s smashing debut collection of essays, I Am Sorry to Think I Have Raised a Timid Son, is a quote from Daniel Boone. The great frontiersman/exploiter was believed to have uttered the words as he was burying a son who had died having declined to volunteer during one of the last battles of the Revolutionary War. But the quote could also have come from the figure who animates this collection, for better and often for worse: the author’s impossible father.
Before we get down in the Oedipal mud, it’s worth noting that this book has a blurb on its front cover that, for once, is not hyperbole. It was written by the brilliant essayist John Jeremiah Sullivan, and it reads: “Kent Russell is one of the most excitingly gifted young non-fiction writers to have appeared in recent memory.”
True. A very big part of the reason why it’s true is that Russell shares a gift with Sullivan (and David Foster Wallace) – the ability to empathize with wildly different tribes of people without ever condescending to them, without ever adopting the let’s-laugh-at-the-Clampetts pose common to inferior writers of inferior non-fiction. While Sullivan painted a surprisingly tender and sympathetic portrait of a Christian rock festival in his book Pulphead, for instance, Russell paints a similarly sympathetic portrait of a much less congenial tribe who call themselves Juggalos. These Midwestern, white, underdog misfits gather annually in rural Illinois for a four-day music festival that boasts “One hundred rap and rock groups! Helicopter rides! Carnival rides! Seminars!…And if you like midgets, we got midgets for you.” Oh, and there’s a shitload of skunk beer, and wrestling too.
The Ur-group for Juggalos is Insane Clown Posse, which Russell describes as “a couple of white minor felons from the working-class suburbs of Detroit.” (I imagine that word “minor” will sting.) Other top acts are the Axe Murder Boyz, Blaze Ya Dead Homie, and Anybody Killa. The music is loosely called horrorcore, and I absolutely cannot listen to it. Here is some Axe Murder Boyz poetry, from their minor hit “Body in a Hole:”
I got this hole in my backyard
I’ve been digging it for a year
I can’t cope with my own fear
Voice I hear has all control, so
I beat your head with a hammer
And leave it stuck in your skull
Then I put your body in a hole.
Russell manages to listen to this stuff and, better yet, he listens to the Juggalos who love to listen to it. They are mostly young white people from the Rust Belt — some people call them white trash — and they told Russell insightful things about life in the under-class, outside and beneath the American Dream, where a kind of proud defiance sets in and hardens. Says one: “It’s like, we’ll never read what you write about us. You can write whatever you want about us, and everyone’s going to believe it. What difference does it make what I say? You’ve got the power. Plus, I give no shits.”
“What you should write, though,” chimes in another, “is why do, like motherfuckers in New York or whatever — how do those motherfuckers think they’re better than me if, like, making fun of me is still okay with them? You know what I’m saying? It’s like they think they know me. Motherfucker, not everyone wants to be you, you know what I’m saying?”
Russell distills these rants into a crisp formulation: “[Juggalos] weren’t born into the respectable middle class and didn’t see a path that led there, so they said fuck it.” Russell finds something immensely respectable about disenfranchised people who have the courage to say that. And I find something immensely refreshing about a writer who has the courage to write that.
This essay, “American Juggalo,” and six of the seven others in the book appeared previously in n+l, The Believer, The New Republic, Tin House and Harper’s. Their range is vast, from a buddy’s tour in Afghanistan to hockey enforcers, horror movie special-effects artists, people who self-immunize themselves against poisonous snake bites, Amish baseball players, a man who lives alone on a desert island off Australia, and, finally, a fraught road trip undertaken by the author and his father.
Russell writes like a man in a fever dream. His sentences were forever jumping off the page and kissing me. Here are just few:
On a fight between two hockey players: “Our guy’s in a corner of the rink, in a one-sided fight. His hands have shed their gloves and are flying about the face of some plugger like new moths around a sodium lamp.”
On his mother’s miscarriages before his birth: “Before me, she’d miscarried twice. Imperious men who strode about converting their will into law, I think they would’ve been. Bizzaro-me’s, with a gift for languages, and thick cocks. They were never more than clouds, though; weather on a screen. They got washed from drain to sewer stem to deep blue sea.”
On avian life in his native Miami: “After October, migrated midwestern vultures would roost in the trees, like committees of bald scholars blackly hunched.”
On the South Pacific as seen from a promontory on a deserted island: “The water far below him was the bluish slate of fancy cats.”
On a clunker imported from Detroit: “The chariot awaiting us was a 1997 Ford Taurus, dull silver…She looks sluggish, like the sort of thing that would live in the mud in a tropical river and make for your anus the second you dove in.”
On a California sunset: “Beyond the Pismo Beach pier, the megaton yolk of the setting sun had broken and run into the Pacific.”
Russell also has a facility for conjuring words, including the verbs plink, tunk and shink, which do not always appear in my dictionary but make perfect sense in context. (Compare with the great Charles Portis describing beetles the size of mice that got barbecued in the flares of a Texas oil field and then — “At night their toasted little corpses pankled down on the tin roof.”)
Curiously, Russell’s verbal dexterity points to one of the book’s problems, namely the strong whiff of grad school wafting from these pages. (The Acknowledgements section includes shout-outs to the journalism programs at the University of Florida and New York University.) There’s nothing wrong with journalism school, but instead of sticking with his strong suit, a loose-limbed, profane and very witty vernacular, Russell often backslides into inappropriate “big” academic words such as praxis, benthic (it refers to organisms living at the bottom of a body of water), homologous, and strabismic (two eyes that can’t focus together). Russell describes a moon as looking “Zambonied,” which I assume refers to the machine that scrapes and resurfaces the ice on a hockey rink. Is he trying to say that the moon looks as glassy as a sheet of freshly resurfaced ice? If so, why not say so? Russell also riffs at random on such things as Miami weather, Daniel Boone, and hockey player Theo Fleury, for no discernible purpose other than to show off his chops.
Which brings us back to the Oedipal mud, a much more serious problem. This could have been two books — Russell’s wise and sympathetic examinations of wildly varied subcultures; and his life-long, scorched-earth war with his father. The latter keeps invading, and deflating, the former. The problem is not that father-son warfare is an unworthy topic for a writer. The problem is that Russell’s father is an insecure, paranoid whinger who calls his son “Generalissimo Nibshit” and “Mr. New York Asshole” and “an assholing know-it-all,” then derides him for being a member of the “intelligentsia” who likes to take baths and read books. Dad served on a swift boat in Vietnam, and he can’t let go of his disappointment that his soft son never served in the military, a Russell family tradition that dates back to the Revolutionary War. Remember this book’s title.
Russell defends his repeated returns to this internecine battlefield this way: “I am doing this for reasons beyond the personal. I have to unearth and drag into the light the hissing, congenital demons that are bleeding me dry. Yes. I have to stake them right in the heart. I have to, because I won’t allow them to sink their teeth into one more member of this family.” (One of the author’s sisters is the decorated novelist Karen Russell.)
Well, maybe this motivation really is beyond the personal, and maybe it’s even noble. But all this daddy-wrestling grew tiresome for me. Every time dad showed up, I found myself yearning for more Juggalos and snake handlers and Amish baseball players.
That said, there is one exchange between Russell père and fils that hilariously captures the chasm separating baby boomers from their Gen X and Gen Y offspring. Dad is delivering another gassy diatribe about the sunny good old days, when Detroit iron sported tail fins and America ruled the seas:
Dad: “I would prefer to still be living in an America of a hundred fifty million people.”
Son: “You, the Beav, and George Wallace should build a time machine.”
Dad: “It used to be a hell of a lot better.”
Son: “A lot more DUI deaths, for one thing.”
Dad: “Absolutely. Who else can lay claim to drinking and driving? Russia?…Getting knee-walking drunk, and then venturing into the night, with a deadly weapon in your hands?”
Son: “Now we’re talking. Fucking, refusing to surrender your freedom to pick up and go. Relinquishing to no man your right to kill your own fool self.”
Dad: “And whoever gets in your way.”
Son: “Back when you could whomp your kid a good one in public. When he deserved it. When he was being a shit in a restaurant, let’s say.”
Dad: “Cruising for a bruising, in the restaurant’s smoking section.”
Son: “Brings a tear to my eye.”
Dad: “Goddam things were made of steel back then. Get those tubs of shit up to speed, and the tailfins started shaking off.”
Yes, the man can talk and he can write. Don’t let my quibbles deter you — read this wonderful book by one of our most excitingly gifted young non-fiction writers. Meanwhile, I’ll be waiting, eagerly, to see what Kent Russell comes up with next. I’m hoping for a novel, but I’ll gladly settle for another book of essays — provided Russell skips the daddy-wrestling and sticks to the Juggalos.
In a genre dominated by by-the-numbers sagas of suffering and redemption, Gregoire Bouillier’s is a refreshingly odd voice. The bulk of his memoir, The Mystery Guest takes place in the space of a single day – a day in which not much happens. And yet, with its restless intelligence, The Mystery Guest manages to encompass all the thematic preoccupations of its touchstone, Mrs. Dalloway: time, fate, and the meaning of life. And unlike Ms. Woolf, Bouillier keeps us laughing.When we meet our protagonist, a failed writer and ex-boyfriend pushing middle age, the filmmaker Michel Leiris has just died. A wry depressive, Bouillier (it’s unclear how much of the book is fictionalized) is interrupted mid-eulogy by a call from his ex-girlfriend, whom he still loves.”How appropriate flashed through my mind. And on the same day Michel Leiris died […] Of course that’s what had happened: she’d heard about Michel Leiris and somehow the fact of his disappearance had made her reappear.”She invites the narrator to a birthday party for the conceptual artist Sophie Calle, who each year has a friend choose a “mystery guest.” This year, the mystery guest is to be…guess who? In the ensuing hundred pages, the narrator will fulfill his role as mystery guest, hoping for some closure with his ex-girlfriend. And of course, once at the party, he will behave like a complete ass – albeit an enlightening one.Until near the end of the book, The Mystery Guest seems content to be a sort of Gallic Woody Allen routine. Bouillier’s prose, in a supple translation by Lorin Stein, turns every interaction between the narrator and his fellow guests into a comic meditation on the impossibility of communication… And then suddenly, in a stunning reversal, Bouillier sets off the depth charges he’s quietly been planting throughout the book. In the end, we discover that The Mystery Guest isn’t a symphony of missed connections after all, but a kind of hymn to possibility. And though we’ve paid nearly 10 cents a page for the privilege of reading this slim paperback, it leaves us moved, even as we shake our heads in disbelief.”The significance of a dream,” Bouillier writes early on, “has less to do with its overt drama than with the details; a long time ago it struck me that the same was true of real life, of what passes among us for real life.” The Mystery Guest pursues this intuition until the boundaries between the imagined and the fizzle away, leaving the reader in a state of grateful intoxication.
On September 5, 1607, the British trade ship Dragon found itself off the coast of Sierra Leone, and Capt. William Keeling and his Portuguese interpreter were entertained by the sailors staging what is supposedly the earliest recorded production of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet. We are informed that the play was presented to keep the crew from “idleness and unlawful games, or sleep.” While the existence of the so-called “bad quartos” assures us that Hamlet’s premiere was on the stage of the Globe in Southwark, England, the earliest specific dated mention of the play being staged was aboard the warped wooden planks of this worn vessel (though some have convincingly doubted the veracity of Keeling’s diary). If the accounts are to be believed, at the outset of what would be a three-year voyage to round the Cape of Good Hope in search of Indonesian spices, the seamen working on behalf of the East India Company performed the play “and in the afternoone… went altogether ashore, to see if… [they] could shoot an elephant.” Shakespeare was still alive when this production of the Danish play first premiered, his celebrated sonnets to be printed two years after that evening aboard the Dragon and a year before the ship would once again find itself in the port of London. Fully eight more plays were to be written by the Bard after this extemporaneous staging of his most famous play in view of those white-sand beaches of the gold and ivory coasts—and in view of the slaving castles, which the English had operated for a generation already.
Tellingly, one of those eight plays yet to be written was The Tempest, Shakespeare’s prescient allegory of colonialism, a tale of “A brave vessel, /Who had, no doubt, some noble creatures in her;” if the records are to be believed, the noble creature in the Dragon was Shakespeare’s words. Prospero is an appropriate corollary to the crew, being as they were only the first in a long line of travelers who brought Shakespeare along on their trips to Africa, both in pamphlet and pig-skin bound volume, including characters as varied as the Victorian adventurer and translator of the Kama Sutra Richard Burton, the infamous self-promoter Henry Morton Stanley in search of Dr. Livingstone, Teddy Roosevelt on a post-presidential safari, the Danish coffee magnate and writer Karen Blixen, and the communist revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara holed up in the Cuban embassy at Dar es Salaam reading from the folio.
Yet it is the Dragon as origin myth that provides the most arresting image. Hamlet, as it were, has many African origins; if the Dragon’s seafaring production was the first we have official record of, than the first “talkie” film version of Shakespeare found its genesis in 1935 Mombasa, where Indians brought by the British to build eastern Africa’s network of rails had their Urdu production Khoon ka Khoon pressed to celluloid.
Both anecdotes are recounted in Cambridge professor and Shakespeare scholar Edward Wilson-Lee’s fascinating Shakespeare in Swahililand: In Search of a Global Poet. Reflecting on how “the earliest recorded production of Hamlet was a command performance for a Portuguese-speaking native of the West African coast” is part of his project to move a bit closer to that “Holy Grail of Shakespeare studies: an understanding of Shakespeare’s universal appeal” while remaining painfully aware of the fact that “that very universalism [has been]…used as a tool to exclude [some] from the bounds of the human.” Raised in Nairobi by American conservationists, Wilson-Lee is aware of the ways in which Shakespeare was often handmaid to the subjugation of people by English colonialists, who used the playwright as evidence of British superiority, while at the same time acknowledging the complicated ways Shakespeare was used by people across Africa in their own striving for national self-determination.
There are, of course, unmistakable political implications for a white Oxbridge African such as Wilson-Lee writing about Shakespeare’s reception across Africa. Readers may be uncomfortable at Wilson-Lee’s recounting of a colonial childhood of wild monkeys in the yard and mango for breakfast, but the author doesn’t shy away from acknowledging his privilege, freely admitting to luxuries such as travelling throughout East Africa by rail, where “white-gloved stewards turned down starched sheets,” visits to Kenya’s air-conditioned shopping malls constructed in imitation of American suburban convenience, and G&T’s at the Aero Club of East Africa. This privilege is most damningly on display in his reflections on the nature of white guilt at his family’s employment of black domestic laborers, a theme he sees in Shakespeare’s “obsession with master-servant relations.”
Wilson-Lee’s is an odd hodgepodge of a book—part memoir, part travelogue, part historical account, part literary criticism. And yet despite its chimerical nature, it is an effective book, combining as it does an adept theoretical orientation, an admirable facility with the Explication de texte of Shakespeare’s language, and a humanism that is sometimes lacking in the most arid of literary theory. Too often, conservative “defenders” of Shakespeare against some imagined threat to the canon obscure the very real ways in which both Shakespeare in particular and English literature in general were used to erase the lives and culture of people in colonized lands, as a type of soft artillery. But Wilson-Lee isn’t wrong when he says that it’s hard not to feel that Shakespeare “almost alone among writers, defies such cynicism.” He conjectures that though Shakespeare’s genius may simply be “some grand collective delusion, a truism rather than a truth,” he can’t help but find that “every time, the dawning freshness of a turn of phrase, a short exchange or an orchestrated speech makes dull the cleverness which wrote these impressions off as nostalgic.” In what is one of the book’s most poignantly beautiful scenes, Wilson-Lee describes listening to two surviving records of that Urdu production of Hamlet preserved at the British Library (the film itself being lost to posterity), explaining that the music of that production was pressed neither on vinyl nor wax cylinder, but rather “on discs made from shellac, crushed beetle-shell.” And so he could hear “the same sounds that would have rung out of the ramshackle theatres onto the Mombasa streets, the love songs of Hindustani Shakespeare, preserved in the carcasses of beetles which had once footled around the forests of Bengal.”
Shakespeare in Swahililand functions both as a historical account of the role that the Bard has played in east Africa, as well as the author’s own travelogue through the historically Swahili-speaking parts of the continent, including Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania, with stops outside of Swahililand in Ethiopia and South Sudan, noting that “one of the first books printed in Swahili was a Shakespearean one” in the form of a translation of Charles and Mary Lamb’s sanitized Victorian bestseller Tales from Shakespeare. His historical account moves from Shakespeare’s own day through 2012 when the South Sudanese delegation to the Cultural Olympiad staged a Juba Arabic performance of Cymbeline for London’s Globe Theater. Shakespeare in Swahililand is replete with fascinating anecdotes about the poet’s reception, while never losing sight of the complexities of that reception. These include descriptions of Roosevelt in the bush reading the Collected Works by gas lamp; Blixen arguing with her servant Farah about The Merchant of Venice, the latter interpreting Shylock as the unequivocal hero of the play; Tanzanian president Julius Nyerere’s scholarly Swahili translation of Julius Caesar, a performance of that same play with the title role being filled by Uganda’s future president Apollo Milton Obote in a 1948 version staged at Makerere University; and the brilliant performance of one of that university’s first Muslim female students, Assiah Jabir, in the role of Volumna in Coriolanus. There are even shades of our current controversy over the Central Park Shakespeare in the Park production of Julius Caesar, as a similar imbroglio occurred in Ethiopia in 1952 when the Roman tyrant reminded audiences of Emperor Haile Selassie.
Wilson-Lee’s story isn’t an uncomplicated one of people across Africa simply taking to the essential core of the Bard; the playwright was enlisted as a subject for Indians to “pass exams for the Colonial Service,” and after Britain’s empire collapsed, theaters were funded by the CIA front the Congress for Cultural Freedom to further American corporate interest, ensuring “the continuation of capitalism,” with unprofitable east African theaters “regularly subsidized by the American oil company Caltex.” And yet for all of the imperial usages of Shakespeare, a subversive core endures, as he becomes something that can be made distinctly and confidently “African.”
It’s a conclusion which neither reduces Shakespeare to Immutable Platonic Genius, nor to to colonial handmaiden viewed as great only because a bunch of genocidal Englishmen forced people to say so at the point of a bayonet. Rather, Shakespeare becomes a multivocal, contradictory, expansive author, one for whom the inconsistencies become precisely the point. This is a “universalism born not of a shared and distinct experience but of mutual contemplation of something so vast and varied as to accommodate every point of view.” And so we have an Indian version of Twelfth Night titled Bhul Bhuliyan, which recasts the opening Illyrian shipwreck as a tragic railroad bridge collapse, with Wilson-Lee reminding us that few “members of the Mombasa audience would not have known or been related to at least one of the 2,498 men who died during the construction of the line which ran from the coast to Lake Victoria.” Or we have Nelson Mandela, imprisoned on Robben Island reading and rereading the plays to keep his sanity and his spirit intact. Or the linguist Alice Werner who in 1913, while studying Bantu, had The Story of the Flesh and the Thigh told to her as an indigenous tale, realizing later that it drew its narrative from Edward Steere’s Swahili version of The Merchant of Venice.
The most famous challenge to the supposed universalism of Shakespeare is in anthropologist Laura Bohannan’s 1966 classic Natural History article “Shakespeare in the Bush.” She recounts how she is asked to tell a story by a gathering of Tiv tribal elders in the highlands of Nigeria, and so she ultimately chooses Hamlet. The elders supposedly reacted with incomprehension at the strange tale: all Tiv know that ghosts are not real, no Tiv would ever scold his mother as Hamlet does, and Ophelia could not have drowned herself because only a witch can do that. As Bohannan records, the elders said “We believe you when you say your marriage customs are different, or your clothes and weapons. But people are the same everywhere; therefore, there are always witches and it is we, the elders, who know how witches work”—a telling if ironic inversion of the normalcies of western triumphalist universalism.
And yet, while Bohannan’s anecdote was meant to demonstrate the fallacy of literary universalism, Wilson-Lee would argue that it only proves that universalism is innately complicated. Witness Hamlet looking for his father’s ghost on Mughal battlefields, or the Marathi translation of Romeo and Juliet inventing an entire backstory for Romeo’s first lover Rosalind (she marries Tybalt and is responsible for losing Friar Lawrence’s message about Juliet’s sleeping potion). Such revisions are as if “watching someone you love in costume, newly beautiful but still the same.” As Wilson-Lee takes pains to explain, despite Shakespeare’s original role in colonialism, African liberation proponents “and other political agitators became adepts at using the colonials’ cultural totems against them,” just like “Caliban cursing Prospero in his own language.” Yet Caliban need not only curse, for the subaltern may speak, and sing too. As a result, across Shakespeare in Swahililand we discover that Wilson-Lee’s African Shakespeare is both colonizer and colonized, Prospero and Caliban, invading Roman of Cymbeline and resisting Celt of that same play, for “everyone can, to an extent, find their own Shakespeare.” This then, is the other side of appropriation, the sublime poetry of subversion.