What do hockey goons and Amish baseball players have in common? What about horror films and the Insane Clown Posse? Tours of duty in Afghanistan and Daniel Boone?
At a glance, these subjects are disparate and oddly matched. But in the capable hands of Kent Russell, they merge to create a portrait of contemporary American masculinity that is brazen and bleak, strange and often hilarious.
The collection follows a loosely constructed pattern. Dated essays spanning the last half of September 2013 and dealing with a prodigal son’s return to his rascally, eccentric and hugely influential father in California alternate with Russell’s own brand of Hunter S. Thompson-like journalistic pieces chronicling his peculiar subject matter. In both, Russell is self-deprecating and honest, and certainly he’s more prone to the wonder of his strange American landscape than he is wont to make declarations about it.
In “American Juggalo,” Russell describes a weekend at the Gathering, a fringe music festival in Illinois that celebrates the Insane Clown Posse and its ilk. The throngs in attendance party with the purpose of pariahs, mixing drugs and sex and a deep and pervasive distrust of mainstream music and culture.
In “Mithradates of Fond du Lac,” Russell tells the story of a Wisconsin man who has made himself immune to the most venomous snakes in the world by letting them bite him.
In “Showing Up,” an essay sure to appeal to Minnesota’s hockey-crazed denizens, Russell trains his gaze on enforcers, those players whose job it is to police opposing players who deviate from the game’s unwritten code. Such legends as Bob Probert and Dave Schultz are brought to life not only as fierce ruffians, but as complicated souls, as characters who stand in for the rest of us men who might be better off given the hockey enforcer’s reign of anger. Describing a fight, Russell writes, “A male chorus is howling around them. Teammates, coaches, fans, fathers and sons — each of us is singing his release. We’re urging or critiquing a fighter, cheering or hissing, pushing him to give more of himself or ridiculing him if we think he’s holding back.”
Russell’s debut takes its title from words that Daniel Boone — frontiersman, American icon, folk hero, purveyor of wild places — was said to have spoken at his own son’s graveside following a battle in the Revolutionary War. “I am sorry to think I have raised a timid son.”
It’s a statement that seems to resonate with the author himself. For whatever else these essays are, they are first and largely a response to Russell’s own father, who comes alive as a man with as much wit as influence, one whose sense of mortality and duty has cast an enormous shadow on his son’s life. We should all be grateful the elder Russell did not raise a timid son.
Peter Geye is the author of two novels, most recently “The Lighthouse Road.” He lives in Minneapolis.