There were two types of American men who entered my youth. The first were the Mormon missionaries who often made the rounds in my small Scottish town. Inviting them in to chat was like having bona fide aliens in your house. The bubbly candor with which they were willing to muse on the meaning of life was a rare treat for a laddie hushed by the emotional air seal of Calvinism. Some years later, on a tour of duty as a roustabout in the North Sea oil fields, I met the second type. On my very first day on the rigs, a stack of oil pipes unraveled, pinning my leg beneath. Tool pusher Bob, my gangly Texan boss, who, I soon learned, was investing the lion’s share of his salary in an expedition to locate Noah’s ark, ambled over to survey the scene. “Listen, son,” he growled, “there’s one thing you need to know. I don’t want no blood on my deck.” By some fluke, no bones were fractured, but Bob’s, and the drilling company’s, attitude took its steady toll. A year later, I jotted down, as my reason for leaving: “Being here was making me the kind of man I don’t want to be.” Bob sure got a kick out of that comment.
In the course of reading Susan Faludi’s engrossing new book, I learned that Pat Conroy used almost exactly the same words to sum up his experience of the Citadel’s horror show of hazing and homosocial violence, fictionalized in The Lords of Discipline. Both Conroy and I had presumed we could decide what kind of men we wanted to be. Nothing unusual about that, but, like so many others, we needed to be fugitives from toxic, all-male environments to figure it out. The pages of Stiffed are chockablock with guys who encounter solace or revulsion in the company of men, but who are ultimately revealed as lonely, frustrated, humbled, and embittered by a deep sense of betrayal. Scouring the landscape of contemporary American masculinity, Faludi goes in search of the origin of this betrayal, and, in a series of stunning case studies of good and bad sons, finds it everywhere in the absence of mendacious, abusive, unexpressive, uncomprehending, or deadbeat fathers. Virtually everyone in this bulging book— from the grunt in the Promise Keeper trenches to the celluloid prince Stallone— feels shortchanged by the shiny promises bequeathed them by the world of their fathers. Groomed for satisfying jobs, civic-minded roles, and dutiful public service, none of which could ever be delivered, men, she concludes, need to liberate themselves (with a little help from their female friends) from their sorry torpor if we are all to usher in “feminism’s dream” of a “freer, more humane world.”
Most readers of Backlash (one of the few bestselling books of the last decade that people have actually talked about) would not have expected a sequel quite like this. From Faludi’s account, no one was more surprised than she. Initially, she set out to explore and explain men’s resistance to women’s efforts to empower themselves. But she quickly took a turn off that interstate and uncovered more realness in the painful, and often choleric, stories men told about the desertion of their fathers. The overall picture she maps is of a society in desperate decline from a golden New Deal age of the common man and the “GI ethic,” where loyalty, dedication, and respect were allied with hard work and everybody-in-the-same-boat solidarity, to the present-day, klieg-lit purgatory of what she calls “ornamental culture”— where men are more and more snared in the narcissist trap of body valuation, obsessive self-imagery, and celebrity consumption.
Ironically, she finds men now floundering, emasculated, in “the very world women so recently shucked off as demeaning and dehumanizing,” and that we are “falling into a status oddly similar to that of women at mid-century,” victimized by a preening “masculine mystique” every bit as disabling as the feminine mystique diagnosed by Betty Friedan. Faludi’s support for this bold thesis is drawn primarily from profiles of men who have already been touched by the glassy finger of media celebrity, so the evidence is somewhat rigged. For me, the most satisfying chapters focus on the quiet rage of laid-off shipyard and aerospace workers in Long Beach, or on the desperate evangelism of the rank and file in a suburban Promise Keepers club. For the most part, however,
Faludi zeroes in on those who have enjoyed their 15 minutes: the churlish remnants of the rape-happy Spur Posse; Michael Bernhardt, the totally courageous My Lai whistle-blower from Charlie Company; Mike McNulty, the conspiracy mavengun-crazy vet who made the Oscar-nominated documentary about Waco; Big Dawg, lauded leader of the Cleveland Browns’ Dawg Pound fan cohort; David Morrell, antiwar author of First Blood and reluctant novelizer of the second Rambo film; T.T. Boy, the most dependable of all porn stars (he has a “life-support system for a penis”); Buzz Aldrin, the lost,
depression-ridden veteran of NASA’s “Spam in a can” astronaut program; and even the Charleston drag queens who boast of their affairs with tortured Citadel cadets. But the book’s jeremiad about the hollow torment of narcissism surely achieves a Zen climax in the confused pageantry of Stallone. Caught here describing his own body— intentionally bloated for an anti-Stallone role— as if it were a “parasite,” the feminized muscle man remarks to Faludi: “It lives off of everything but what it is.”
Faludi is most at home with the white boys she grew up around in her postwar suburb. A mere third of one chapter is devoted to the Scott brothers of South Central L.A.: Kody, of Monster supergangsta fame, Kershaun of lesser Crips lieutenant fame, and Kerwin, the law-abiding younger son who toils dutifully in a grocery store. Otherwise, we are in predominantly white company and thereby miss out on most of the socially valuable debates about the crisis of ethnic America, and especially black masculinity. As a result, readers who have learned to mistrust universalist statements about gender will take with a pinch of salt Faludi’s call for all men to revolt, as women once did. They may indeed point out that the very model she favors— gay men’s care-giving, institution-building response to the AIDS crisis— has mostly benefited middle-class whites. So, too, those more partial to economic causality will note that she has much less to say about the impact of the sweeping restructuring of capitalism than she surely ought to. But her call for men’s liberation is neither naive nor unsupported, and the stark reasoning and thick description in this book merit at least as much public discussion as did Backlash. Faludi is warning us, after all, that mass mobilizations like the Promise Keepers and the Million Man March may not have been mere wind-driven ripples on the surface of history, but advance signals of some serious seismic shaking down below.