A distinctly niche read that asks tough, important questions about American masculinity that we should all strive to be more mindful of in today’s climate.
A novelist and nonfiction writer, Kent Russell is able to wring powerful, relatable emotion from the stone of American masculinity and his own upbringing. Russell can be a lean, muscular writer in the vein of more gruff male authors like the lauded Charles Bukowski or the less-lauded Charles Portis, but he always imbues his writing with a yearning and accessible heart and is prone to tossing in a few two-dollar words along the way.
Russell cut his teeth writing for magazines like n+1, GQ, and Harper’s, honing a voice strong and singular enough to carry I Am Sorry to Think I have Raised a Timid Son, his collection of non-fiction essays all connected in some way to his upbringing. The writer explores masculinity, both his own and the men around him, but also immerses himself in a diverse array of scenery, allowing himself to live in the moment without over-intellectualizing too regularly.
A clear highlight of the collection is the surreal “American Juggalo,” where Russell travels for seventeen hours through what one in 2016 may call “Forgotten America” to Gathering of the Juggalos, the iconic festival based around cult rap group Insane Clown Posse. Originally published in n+1, the story pits Russell’s descriptive pragmatism against the ludicrous, Faygo-fueled landscape that lays before him, often with dryly hilarious results like the following passage.
“The heat, light, and cicadas made the experience not unlike lying inside an incandescent bulb. It wasn’t long before I dozed. A ‘FUCK YOUR FACE!’ chant roused me from half sleep; I checked the program and couldn’t be sure if it was coming from the Psychopathic Records Karaoke Tournament or the wet T-shirt contest hosted by Ron Jeremy. Then I was asleep,” he writes.
On the heavier side is the book’s opener “Ryan Went to Afghanistan,” a harrowing and heart-wrenching story about one of Russell’s friends, who is inspired to go into military service after a prison stint and largely because of the example set by Russell’s family military ties. The piece begins by highlighting the contrast between Russell and his friend Ryan, touches on a powerful conversation where Russell’s father urges him not to uphold their military legacy due to his disillusionment with the wars in the Middle East. Smartly, Russell presents the emails from Ryan as they were written, Internet syntax and all. The letters are truly chilling, and they act as a powerful lens through which Russell examines both their relationship and his feelings on the military at large.
Russell’s style is distinct and off-kilter, making I Am Sorry to Think I Have Raised a Timid Son a distinctly niche read, but it asks tough, important questions about American masculinity that we should all strive to be more mindful of in today’s climate.