“Does it feel a little decadent, a little end-of-empire?” A conversation with Kent Russell
“Let’s, ah, let’s just see,” Tim said, badly missing the garbage can with his tossed empty. He watched as I started, then stopped, taking this down in my spiral ledger. I looked at him expectantly. “Brotherman, there’s no black mamba on earth with venom enough to kill me.” He made an expansive gesture with a new beer in hand. He embraced my spotlight. “I control them,” he said. “I control death.”
A freight train trundled across the far bank of windows. The sun didn’t set so much as slowly back away. Tim drank his beer to foam and said, “We go.” He slipped his hands inside welding gloves. He opened the tank and hooked the mamba. He threw down one and then the other glove as though starting a hockey fight. He took the snake behind her head. She vined herself up his other arm, tonguing his ardor. She unhinged her abysmal mouth. “She’s opened up!” somebody went. I thought I could hear a faint but continuous B-flat.
Tim held his palm away from his hip as though reaching for another’s hand. The mamba’s eyes shined with an intense bigotry of purpose. Her exhalations seemed to jelly the air. Tim pursed his lips, tensed, and lowered the open mouth to his forearm. Then the snake nipped him. She nipped him twice, actually, in quick succession, fangs through skin making the same small popping noises as airholes forked in TV dinners. Tim’s arm immediately petrified.
“That might be the worst one ever,” he said, carefully unwinding the mamba and dropping her into the tank.
–Excerpt from “The Mithradates of Fond du Lac,” I’m Sorry To Think I Have Raised a Timid Son (Knopf)
ANNE RASMUSSEN: As I reader I particularly enjoyed not knowing where your curiosity and drive to examine a certain type of man on the fringes of society would take me next. It’s a fascinating ride, from a leaky tent at a less-than-welcoming Gathering of Juggalos in Illinois, to an industrial building-turned “lab” full of venomous snakes on the shores of Lake Winnebago; from an Albertan old folks home where an elderly hockey enforcer lives, to an Australian “desert island” whose ad-hoc proprietor, a corporate burnout-turned-castaway, is ever on the lookout for his next hustle. And, threaded between these essays, your account of a recent visit with your parents provides the connective tissue, an emotional through-line. Each conversation with your father expands what we’ve read in the essays, and lays the groundwork for the pieces that follow.
Many of these stand-alone pieces were previously published elsewhere. At what point did you start to envision these fitting into a collection? And what was the process like revising and pulling them together with an eye for sequence and continuity?
KENT RUSSELL: That’s a good question! It’s funny, you know — when I first arrived in New York — and I’m talking, like, day two — someone told me that they “like [my] Southern accent.” I was taken aback; “What Southern accent, bro?” Rather, I talk exactly like my father, who talks like someone who grew up in central Florida back when that place was the terminus of the wire-grass South. So, one day in 2012, when my then-prospective, now-actual agent Jim Rutman came up to me and was like, “I’m really digging this collection you’re putting together; let me work with you on it” — my first thought was, “What collection, bro?”
At the time, I was working my day job at Yeshiva University, using time off during High Holy Days and summer break to pursue stories that I found interesting. Which, in retrospect, were stories relating to questions about myself, about my family that, subconsciously, I felt impelled to answer. This sounds like a bunch of woo-woo, I know, but honestly, it wasn’t until ol’ JR tapped me on my shoulder that I woke up to the fact that I had been sleepwalking towards this — a collection of connected stories, a literary debut, a memoir-through-essays, whatever you want to call it — all along.
At that point, I had published “Ryan Went to Afghanistan,” “American Juggalo,” and “Mithradates of Fond-du-Lac,” as well as a whole bunch of hockey writing that maybe fourteen people from the Canadian prairie read. I was also set up to go on my reporting trip for “Showing Up,” and was in the early stages of planning the idea that eventually became “Island Man.”
So I had maybe 1/4 of the finished book in the can when I realized I was writing a book. After that, everything went towards “the book.” Even when drafting stories for magazines, I was drafting them for this book. Ultimately, the stories would get shaved, polished, and edited, but I always returned to my first, more feral drafts when sewing them into this Frankenstein’s monster that shambles before you.
AR: Throughout the book you examine and explode the popular myth of the rugged individualist, the self-made man who faces down the elements and is immune to the trappings of modern society. There’s a bit of godliness in that narrative—the shipwrecked man who recreates a world using whatever he has on hand. It’s hard to deny the lasting appeal of this fantasy, but it’s also sort of incredible to realize how these 18th century characters, Robinson Crusoe and Daniel Boone seem to persist as a kind of fucked-up blueprint for masculinity today, in spite of the lack of a 21st century equivalent for their world. And your closer reading of these stories reveals Crusoe and Boone to be far more flawed (and less independent) than their popular narrative implies. As you put it, “the exaltation of Daniel Boone began as a scam.” In many of these essays you encounter men who actively promote these bygone ideals– but most are operating on the outer fringes (or legal grey areas) of society.
What made you first decide to revisit these heroic tales as an adult? Were you surprised by the dysfunction you found?
KR: I think the gravitational pull of this kind of world-creating, radical autonomy speaks to something deeply flawed not just in myself, but in most every human being. (Though it does seem to afflict white American males most of all.) It’s totally juvenile. It’s the visceral reaction we saw in the wake of that Obama line, “You didn’t build that.” It’s refusing to admit, “I am not my own.” It’s like 95 percent of the bombastic hip-hop I breathe in through my ears every day.
And it’s very Miltonic, right? It’s why we root for Lucifer in Paradise Lost. In the story of his hopeless, blackly heroic, fight-til-kingdom-come rebellion against an individually-obliterating communion, we see ourselves. It’s saying, No but fuck you guys! Fuck your kindness, your charity, your community, your vulnerability that allows you to love and be loved. I don’t need any of that shit anyway! I can do it all by myself!
And this thinking that you are exceptional, that you were born with all the answers and capabilities, that when push comes to shove all you gotta do is bust out the metal detector and the archaeologist’s brush and reveal the solution within you — holy shit does that kind of thinking warm my cockles. That kind of thinking allows for so much strength, ingenuity, and monumental effort — but that kind of thinking also allows for coldness, cruelty, and the complete sequestration that is hell itself. It is incredibly dangerous. It is, like, the personification of fearfulness.
Anyway, long story short, I wanted to go out and get to know some of the people who best exemplify aspects of this kind of thinking. I was intensely, platonically attracted to these people. I wanted to know more about why that was.
AR: For much of the book you employ a first-person narrative, but you make an interesting choice in “Island Man” to switch to an omniscient 3rd person perspective. We are introduced first to Dave, the island’s hustler/squatter/proprietor and then “the customer,” who has purchased (at no small cost) a two-week stay on the remote island. Readers will notice fairly quickly that you and “the customer” share many characteristics, but the narrative distance gives that chapter a unique, almost fable-like feel within the book. It could be you, or not-you, and the POV shift puts “the customer” and “Dave” on relatively equal footing. We get more inside the head of Dave than would be allowable in a piece of straight reportage. Towards the end of the piece, when “I” unexpectedly–and briefly–reappears, the effect feels bracing, like a stage production in which the 4th wall is suddenly broken. I really loved this blurring of the line between fiction and non, and I wondered why you chose to change the POV for “Island Man” in particular. Were you tempted to shift POV in this way with any of the other pieces?
One of my favorite parts of the writing process is in the beginning, when I’m just getting to know my subject matter, just getting acquainted. There’s so much about this kind of work that is similar to le romance! So much of it is a seduction. But when I’m reporting on something — or even before the reporting, when I’m just doing deep reading — there usually comes a moment when I realize how this story should be told, how it should be structured. That’s super thrilling, that click. It’s like the moment you realize the other person can make you smile involuntarily, if we want to continue with the lame dating metaphor.
Which is all a long way of saying: Going to Dave’s island was a great challenge for me, as I tend not to put myself around other people for long periods of uninterrupted time. Living with a stranger for two weeks was in some ways a great FACE YOUR FEARS! challenge. And, of course, I failed that challenge. I found myself retreating deeper into myself, hiding behind an unassuming front like a hunter in a deer blind. My friends like to joke that, after four hours, I tend to go barely-verbal, and that’s when they know my Irish Exit is imminent.
Only there is no Irish Exiting from a goddamn desert island. So, it was a long period of operating in a quasi-disassociative state. Reporting, in general, can feel like that, when you’re existing solely as an experiencing consciousness — but being on that island took it to a whole new extreme for me. And, as it was happening, I was like, Duh. That’s how we write it.
Also, just being around a subject for two weeks — I got to know Dave pretty goddamn well. At least insofar as his speech, mannerisms, and (apparent) thought patterns went. That’s the distinction of fiction, right? The ability to actually enter one or more other domes. I’m intensely jealous of that ability, but non-fiction writers can achieve it. They just have to report the hell out of something. I’m not a good depth reporter, but this was one instance in which I felt like I could dip my toe into omniscience.
AR: I know it’s probably unfair to ask this, but do you have a favorite essay in this collection? And why?
KR: Not to be completely groan-inducing, but I like to think of the whole megillah as a kind of confederated essay. I like to think that you can read through it and get a sense of the disparate subjects explored therein — but that you can also get a sense of a dissolving type of sensibility; a dissolving type of man; and the dissolution inherent in the coming-of-age story, the father-son story.
Really, I think I spent the last seven years expanding and making worse the final stanza of John Balaban’s “Words for My Daughter.” Which, let’s not even begin to psychoanalyze that one, eh?
I want you to know the worst and be free from it.
I want you to know the worst and still find good.
Day by day, as you play nearby or laugh
with the ladies at People’s Bank as we go around town
and I find myself beaming like a fool,
I suspect I am here less for your protection
than you are here for mine, as if you were sent
to call me back into our helpless tribe.
AR: I love that! And on the whole, you seem pretty open to rigorous (occasionally merciless) self-analysis. You delve into your family’s tradition of military service, your childhood issues with anger, and how your dad’s fairly contentious worldview has shaped your own. You also track the diminishment, in the cultural mainstream, of a kind of physical culture that used to function as a sort of release valve for anger or excess energy or intense emotion. In some ways it feels like we’ve eliminated physicality–in play, in work, in conflict– from modern life. I think there are good and well-intentioned reasons for many of these individual changes, but physicality—whether manifested in manual labor or a schoolyard fight or military service—is often viewed as “less than.” And we’ve chosen to sanitize/explain away our own angry and violent impulses in a way that feels deeply unhealthy.
In your quest to spend time with this “dissolving type” of man—whether he is reminiscing about knocking someone’s teeth out, letting venomous snakes bite him, or touting military service while warning you not to enlist, do you feel that you arrived at any answers? (Or is the whole idea of “answers” beside the point?)
Ha, you know — in general, I don’t want anyone touching me. But then, when I do want that, I tend to go overboard. As a kid, I roughhoused and grabassed too hard; my parents used to have to lock me in my bedroom until I calmed the hell down. As an adult, I tend to withhold my affection until I’m ready to unleash it in ways that both physically and psychologically hurt people. I knock their head against mine, clap their crotch, slap butts, whatever. (Just the other day, I pushed an editor into a bush?)
I know there’s an old-ass philosophical history behind the mind/body split as it pertains to work and life. Philosophers be philosophizin’ while their slaves polish the boat, etc. The death of medieval guilds and ateliers. The decline of industry. And now, of course, in our yearning, we’ve got all artisanal everything, the gentrification of craftsmanship.
Does it feel a little decadent, a little end-of-empire? No goddamn doubt. I’m just going to leave these E.M. Cioran quotes here, because if I tried to explain how I felt about this, I’d just be paraphrasing him:
“A civilization is ‘affected’ when its delicate members set the tone for it; but thanks to them, it has definitively triumphed over nature—and collapses.”
“[We now think that] every act over which the mind’s luminous malediction fails to preside represents a vestige of ancestral stupidity.”
“Decadence is merely instinct gone impure under the action of consciousness.”
“Life belongs to dolts….Is it not the radiant stupidity of the dolts which accomplishes the work of the great periods?”
I can’t seem to find the grand unifying quote of his that I thought I had. But, suffice it to say, his big thing is that our blood has grown too tepid to stun our minds.
Eh, while we’re at it, let’s get Chesterton in here re: that kind of felt-lack I think you’re referring to; dudes tacking up “Fight Club” posters in their dorm rooms and so on:
“[If you] free a camel of the burden of its hump, you may be freeing him from being a camel.”
And, lastly, just to be as uber-pretentious as possible, let’s call in the left-hander from the bullpen. Let’s get Rumi in the game:
“We have been busy accumulating solace.
Make us afraid of how we were.”
AR: For a writer of nonfiction, gaining the trust of your subjects seems a tricky balancing act, especially when they tend to be men who view their outsider status with a certain oppositional pride. While Tim Friede, a man determined to self-inoculate against deadly snakebites, is eager to share his story (and feats of daring) with you, the Juggalos you encounter at their annual Gathering are openly hostile to your presence, much less any attempts you make to draw them out. In another piece, as you watch a group of Amish teens playing baseball, you decide to withdraw at a particularly intimate moment in the game, though no one has challenged your presence there. And some of the strongest resistance in the book comes not from strangers, but your father, who is emphatically not cooperating with any plans you might have to write about him. That you persist in telling the story in any way you can makes for some hilarious, awkward, and painful moments.
How do you approach a new subject or community for the first time, and what have you learned, in practice, about what to reveal, when to press on further, and what to leave off the record?
KR: Well, first thing’s first — get knee-walking drunk with them. Nothing’ll get a closed fist of a man to bloom faster than six-plus beer/shot combos. (I am only half-kidding about this.)
No, really, you just have to appear to be dumb as hell. I say “appear” because, for every story in this book, I came waaaaay prepared. (Do you know how many hours of my life I lost to Insane Clown Posse mixtapes? How much hockey I’ve watched? How many textbooks on elapids I had to read before I boarded plane #1??!) Nobody will go into giddy minutiae, digressing + explaining + opening up, to a peer. But they’ll talk to the fool, the goober, the guy who bumbles around and seems totally harmless. Janet Malcolm nailed it in “The Journalist and the Murderer” — this is a confidence game, first and foremost. Very nearly morally indefensible.
But, yeah, in most cases, speaking to the men in this book, trying to get them to open up — this was like trying to solve a Rubick’s cube not by looking down at my hands, but by watching my reflected self work over it in a mirror. I knew the hurting, broken psychologies of these dudes — very well; too well — and it was because of that affinity that I wasn’t able to completely shell them. It takes one to know one, you know? And I utterly knew their desire not to get dug out of their coffin, not to get exposed to the withering, denuding light of day.
Though maybe the dramatization of that masculine-feelings Matrix-fight did the job of denuding, anyway? One can hope.
AR: It’s interesting that you’ve chosen to write memoir in spite of that palpable fear of being exposed. You open the book with a line from E. M. Cioran, “Write books only if you are going to say in them the things you would never dare confide to anyone.” Which brings me to more of a process question: who do you trust to read your work-in-progress, and at what point do you feel ready to receive feedback?
Yeah, err…nobody! I go out, I report, and then for weeks or months I spin stuff against my hands on the pottery wheel of my mind. Then, when I have fully molded and fired some horrible artifact, I chest-pass it at an editor with nary a heads-up. DO YOU WANT THIS?? I scream from the other side of a wide gulf. BECAUSE IF NOT, IT’S COOL. Only then are other eyes allowed to be lain on it.
For I am greatly unsure of my own ability, you see, and I feel that, were anyone to peep my stuff before it’s done and buffed, they would understand that I am a fraud. It would feel like somebody coming into my bedroom and seeing my naked body while I slept, I think.
AR: The partial destruction of your childhood home during Hurricane Andrew gave you a crash-course on the fallibility of man controlling nature. Initially sent by your parents to live with unfamiliar relatives in Pennsylvania in the immediate aftermath of the storm, you and your siblings returned some months later to live in the rebuilt-but-never-quite restored home, and over the years “Russellhaus” seemed to reflect South Florida’s steroidal cycle of birth, infestation, death, and decay, even as newer properties sprang up around you, as if in defiance—or denial—of the forces of nature.
How did being a kid growing up with this particular experience of place and loss and home shape your imagination and sensibilities as a writer?
KR: Whoa ho ho, this question is waaaay too fraught with feelings for me to answer succinctly.
I guess I can just say that, more than anything, Miami felt like hothouse America. It’s the future of the country come early. For better and for worse. A plurality of voices, no true majority, no civic spirit, dozens of beautiful, vibrant cultures tolerating one another if not entirely interacting.
Miami is: inordinately violent. Miami is: where the disparity between rich and poor will make your head spin. Miami is: where I understood really goddamn early that whiteness is a thing, and it is not necessarily a thing to be proud of. Miami is: where you can still be within America but see America as if from without — and see that it looks truly strange and hilarious and tragic and beautiful.
Miami is: my home that never felt like a home. My father would tell us stories of Miami from the dream-time, back before the Mariel Boatlift and the mass immigration and all the Latin American money, back when it was a cracker beach town and you pronounced it My-ammuh. My sisters and I were made to feel that there was something elegiac about growing up in Miami as white, ostensibly-American kids. We were the last of some kind of tribe. Once we were gone, the fort we were manning would be torn down, or else it’d become a museum.
Find a copy of I Am Sorry to Think I Have Raised a Timid Son on Indiebound.