First it was the novel of religious belief. Last December Paul Elie took to the pages of the New York Times Book Review to lament that it has “gone where belief itself has gone”—to the margins of American life. (Well, that’s where nearly all American novels have gone in the last twenty-five years, but you know what he means.) Now it is “masculine writing” that has turned up missing and presumed dead. At least according to the novelist Frank Bill, who worries in the Daily Beast that
But masculinity means something more. For Bill it means “to be tough, to be rugged, to be able to take care of your damn self.” Among the writers who “shed light” on this side of masculinity, for him, are Charles Bukowski, Thom Jones, Jim Harrison, Larry Brown, Hubert Selby, Daniel Woodrell, Donald Ray Pollock, Cormac McCarthy, Roger Smith, and James Carlos Blake. O, how I love a list without explanations, as if I were going to take it to the bookstore with me! The only writer Bill says anything more about is Crews, who is “like rare bourbon, hard to come by, but worth every drop—we’d have to keep him behind the counter.” Has literary criticism ever been so definitive, so unashamedly literary?
The truth is that Frank Bill is on to something, but not in the terms he proposes. There are fewer men in American fiction, there is less masculinity, but not because there are fewer hunters and less weight-lifting. Richard Katz, the rocker in Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, is a man in Frank Bill’s sense, a good man, a mentsh—not, however, because he uses power tools to build decks. He is a man because, even while “glimps[ing] his pride in its pathetic woundedness,” he renounces his adulterous lover (a woman he has loved hopelessly for twenty years) and convinces her to return to her husband.
Nestor Camacho, the 25-year-old Miami cop in Tom Wolfe’s Back to Blood, is a man in Frank Bill’s sense—a man who is “tough mentally and physically.” Not, however, because he climbs the 70-foot mast of a schooner to save a Cuban refugee and not because, without any help, he takes down a suspect who is a foot taller and a hundred pounds heavier. (Those actions make him a hero in the eyes of his fellow cops, although a taboo prevents them from saying so.) He is a man because official reprimands and suspension from the police force—public accusations of racism, ostracism by his own family—don’t stop him from investigating an injustice all on his own. “He was just being a cop,” his superior officer explains.
Charles Homar, the 31-year-old magazine writer in William Giraldi’s Busy Monsters, is a man in Frank Bill’s sense, or at least he develops into one over the course of his novel—not because he shoots up the boat on which his fiancée leaves him, serves a stretch in prison, stalks Bigfoot, becomes what his old allies on the Left would call a gun nut (“You can find comfort in Misters Smith and Wesson”), and stays on the trail of his fiancée till he gets her back. He is a man because his brushes with danger lead to marriage and fatherhood.
Bill’s conception of it might called reactive masculinity, a backlash against the gender-neutralization of American culture described by Harvey C. Mansfield nearly seven years ago in his book Manliness. Bill is hardly alone: last week John Hawkins listed the “7 Movies That Show You The Masculine Ideal,” and predictably enough, all seven were action movies in which masculinity is a romanticized ideal, released from the realities (including the physical limitations) that drag upon ordinary men. Whenever reactive masculinity is confused with true manhood, I feel as if I were back in high school, being ridiculed once again by the heavy-set one-year lettermen who played offensive line on the winless football team because I was a three-year letterman in varsity track and cross country, too small to play the more “rugged” sport, not a “real athlete.”
Bill almost has it right, although his insertion of the word damn betrays his anxiety: to be a real man is “to be able to take care of your damn self,” but only because you have a horror of anyone else’s being obliged to take care of you. Taking care of others is a man’s job. A man knows in his bones that he is expendable, especially in his bones, and if he is to be indispensable, he must make himself so—by indispensable service to others. If I had to define masculinity while standing on one foot, I don’t think I could do any worse.
I find myself thinking of Swede Levov in Roth’s American Pastoral with his “golden gift of responsibility,” his “fatal attraction to duty.” He doesn’t change his own oil; he doesn’t lift weights or hunt deer; he isn’t even much of a do-it-yourselfer. But Swede is a man for all that—a real man, perhaps the manliest man in recent American fiction. Not his athleticism, not his rugged frame and youthful good looks, not even his hands-on knowledge of how to make something lasting and useful (gloves, in his case), but the responsibility that “follows him through life”—that’s what makes him, for Philip Roth and the reader of American Pastoral, a shining symbol of manhood. If there are fewer men in American fiction, if there is less masculinity, perhaps the reason is that more male characters are absorbed with their “damn selves” and fewer are willing, like the Swede, to accede to responsibility, no matter (really) what it is.