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.