Through his reviews of two novels—Franzen’s Freedom and Percy’s The Wilding—Andrew Ladd argues that modern men ought to embrace ‘the rougher side of masculinity.’
There’s an unfortunate tendency, when discussing contemporary masculinity (one that even my last review for this magazine displayed), to hold up the gentler side of the modern “good” man—his sensitive, intellectual, soul-searching side—as his most important trait.
In this way of looking at things, the rougher side of masculinity—the kind expressed in violent sports, lusty objectification of women, and outdoorsy, rifle-toting, one-with-nature-ism—tends to get disparaged, tagged with some embarrassment as the way our fathers used to act, an old-fashioned set of values to be as thoroughly as possible papered over. Indeed, the struggle to become a good man is often simplified, unfairly, into the struggle of our civilized, modern sensitivity over “the thugs of millennia past” (my words, last column).
And yet when I force myself to think about it—when I force myself to actually be a “good man,” and look at the situation with that compassionate objectivity we’re supposedly so in command of—I wonder if there isn’t something very wrong about writing off the alleged brutes among us. In two new novels, arguably, brutishness triumphs.
Plenty of words have already been written praising Jonathan Franzen’s latest work of fiction, Freedom (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, $28), and I won’t waste any more except to say that it is, indeed, a damn great book. Franzen excels at writing characters who are both compellingly specific and painfully easy to identify with, and as you follow his latest fractured Midwestern family through the obstacle course he sets for them, you end up evaluating your own past choices as much as you evaluate theirs.
Franzen, though, is still quick to divide his male characters into the convenient categories of “nice and civilized” and “flawed and masculine.” The book’s most crucial relationship, for instance, is perhaps not the marriage between protagonists Walter and Patty Berglund, but the yin/yang, Abel/Cain, good/bad back-and-forth between Walter and his college roommate, Richard.
Walter, the “nice” one—as even the other characters describe him—is a moral compass, a thoughtful environmentalist, and a sensitive family man to a fault. Meanwhile, the lone-wolf womanizing musician, Richard, happily sleeps his way through armies of throwaway sex objects, and can’t even make things work, in the end, with the love of his life.
Things aren’t quite that black and white, of course—Richard has his moments of sensitivity, and Walter a few of reckless brutishness—but throughout the book our sympathies usually lie with the man who is primarily Mr. Nice Guy. Walter is the one with the detailed, troubled back story, while Richard’s upbringing is flattened into a few paragraphs; Walter is the one whose pain we feel most keenly at all his various losses, while Richard’s travails seem sometimes in the realm of caricature; and Walter, after all, is the one with whom the book starts and ends, while Richard drifts away in the last pages without much resolution other than the suggestion that, after everything, he’s still a lone-wolf womanizer.
And yet it’s Walter’s niceness that is often his most infuriating quality—and those times when he abandons it the most satisfying. Only when he gives his goodness a rest do things actually get done in his life, and even then they’re a fraction of what Richard, mostly unbeheld by the concerns of “the good man,” manages to make happen. You begin to wonder—even as Franzen paints his censorious portrait of the Bush years—if shoot-from-the-hip cowboys are actually that bad.
Benjamin Percy’s suspenseful new novel, The Wilding (Graywolf, $23), shares a great number of Freedom’s thematic concerns: the struggles of child-rearing; humans’ disastrous effect on the environment; and the stresses often faced in modern marriages. Percy’s central concern is, like Franzen’s, the conflict between sensitive, thoughtful, contemporary masculinity—embodied by 30-something husband and high-school English teacher Justin—and the rough-edged, violent masculinity it aims to outgrow.
That second type of masculinity shows up in several other characters, to varying degrees: a property tycoon and, natch, lone-wolf womanizer, Bobby Fremont, who attempts to put the moves on Justin’s wife; an Iraq vet, Brian, whose PTSD amplifies the emotional hollowness and sexual instincts that less enlightened men, in the caricature, supposedly feel all the time; and, most strikingly, Justin’s father, Paul, a grizzled man of the woods with no patience for sissies or civilization, who seems happiest when he’s out shooting.
And again, though Justin seems intended, by most conventional standards, as the story’s main protagonist and the one with whom we’re meant to identify and sympathize, for the most part his sensitivity and good-manness is the book’s most tiresome aspect. He’s ineffectual, prevaricating, and whiny—and while his father Paul is the sort of guy who in real life I’d probably find as insufferable as Justin does, it’s blessed relief when he turns up and takes control of things, bossing Justin around and calling him on his endless, introspective BS.
Unlike Walter Berglund, though, who at least manages to snag a few shreds of redemption in his occasional moments of brutishness, Justin seems unable even to do that: when he tries to “act manly” he’s embarrassingly bad at it, and when he’s forced into a leadership role even his young son is quick to recognize his uselessness. Perhaps more terrifying than any of Percy’s scenes in darkened woods is his suggestion that the “better” we are, the worse things get.
So what to make of all this? Should we all go back to acting like Don Draper? The Man with No Name? Bogey?
No. I stick by my own sissiness, and those iconic men of the past century are hardly perfect either. But I think it’s important to acknowledge that what we talk about today as being “good” masculinity often is sissiness, with all the word’s pejorative connotations, and not the purely positive thing we make it out to be.
Being a better man is not as simple—or shouldn’t be—as abandoning our “primitive” habits and instincts, of filing off masculinity’s rough edges altogether. Instead, it should involve embracing our “bad” side—and not in a limp, tender sort of way, but in a big old bear hug, one that lets us control how much wriggle room we give it, rather than letting it run wild.
Of course, other feminists (for I count myself among them) might object that such a project is just a way to legitimize sexist behavior—that by making womanizing or hunting or whatever part of the “good” man we make it harder to attack—but I disagree: self-censure is often the most effective kind, and if more men start to scrutinize their “bad” habits with as much care as is often devoted to their “good” ones, the more likely we are to see change—even among the men who don’t care to scrutinize at all.