The past decade has seen an insurgence of what can be called, for lack of an official title, The Millennial Men of Literature; male writers who are self-deprecating, brutally honest, observant to the point of near voyeurism, and generous with the F-word. The late David Foster Wallace may have been president of this informal club, with Dave Eggers, Chuck Palahniuk, and Ron Currie, Jr. as members-at-large. Russell, with his clunkily titled debut, has all but solidified his presence in their company.
There comes a point in I Am Sorry to Think That I Have Raised a Timid Son where the line between first-person journalism and memoir begins to blur. Although it is touted as a collection of essays, Russell also includes bits of personal reflection. These musings generally deal in various interactions with his father who shows up frequently, if sometimes only tangentially, in his essays. It becomes apparent from the first few moments we share with Russell and his father that he hasn’t lived up to his father’s ideal of what a son should be. He was a small child, born cross-eyed and with an inverted breastbone, bad at sports, and never followed in the family tradition of joining the Armed Forces. It is here we find Russell’s motivation and inspiration: “I have to unearth and drag into the light the hissing, congenital demons that are bleeding me dry,” a reference to both his father and his unfulfilled expectations. His father seems to resent his choice of profession, often calling him a “nibshit,” and questions who would be interested in his various journalistic dalliances.
Of those dalliances, Russell spent time at the Gathering of the Juggalos (a music festival celebrating the culture spawned by Insane Clown Posse), interviewing a faded hockey star, stalking around rural Central Pennsylvania to find Amish teens who play baseball, and taking classes at horror effects master Tom Savini’s Special Make-Up Effects Program outside of Pittsburgh. While these topics may seem unrelated, it’s in those date-stamped interludes with his father that Russell’s overarching theme appears. He admits early on that he “fetishize[s] opaque brutes,” perhaps because this is what his father is and what he wanted of a son. And brutes he finds, in various forms, though it would seem the varying definition of masculinity is more what Russell is fetishizing than the brute himself.
Russell keeps his prose simplistic and approachable, with moments of lyricism. He is prone to fluctuate between existential analysis and dry humor and back again, often on the same page. What proves most refreshing, though, is Russell’s choice to not overtly put all his cards on the table; he never gives the compilation a concrete definition. If taken as merely a collection of essays one may find I Am Sorry to Think That I Have Raised a Timid Son not altogether cohesive. Think of it more as a sort of journalistic memoir and you’ll find Russell’s musings profound, naked, and moving.—ADAM PRIBILA