The Uncertainty Principle
I Am Sorry To Think I Have Raised a Timid Son
(Alfred A. Knopf, 2015)
The essayist Kent Russell had two grandfathers who made a tradition of bestowing gifts of their own military memorabilia on his birthdays while recounting their heroic exploits in World War II. Russell’s blustering father, diminutive in stature like his son, joked about having “stuck lollipops under his heels” for the opportunity to fight in Vietnam, and delighted to join the spectacle of macabre gift-giving, blazing for the boy a path and a mindset followed by all Russell men.
When he came of age, Russell joined the marines. “I figured the marines might make up for my deficiencies in the eyes of my father.” That is about all he says of his foray down the well-trodden path, but his first collection of essays, I Am Sorry to Think I Have Raised a Timid Son, hurls headlong into a minute analysis of the ingrained family ethos.
Embedded in able, and often thrilling, coverage of topics as varied as the Gathering of the Juggalos, an autodidact Mithradates in Wisconsin venturing to make himself immune to every poison, and Daniel Boone (who provides the title quotation), is Russell’s excruciating ambivalence about the values of traditional masculinity with which he was raised. The result is a protean collection spined by the author’s obsessive search for self-understanding through the lens of his father. Vividly rendered through a frequent interspersion of vignettes, the man is a tattered imago inevitably fluttering even into the essays that do not directly concern him, as if the subjects for those essays were, from the very beginning, perceived by the author as potential extended metaphors for his relationship with his father. While the pattern is consistent enough to qualify as the central theme, it proves too rickety a truss on which to hang the more traditional essays. Russell seems almost brutalized by the fact that perceiving all the parts of a picture does not equate to understanding it, creating an obsession that warps his otherwise first-rate observations of the world around him dependably back to his fundamental confusion. The crisis unbalances not just the author’s identity, but also the writing itself.
The problem for Russell is that he doesn’t feel the way he thinks he should feel. Reading a loosely cobbled together family history, reluctantly surrendered to him by his father and revealing, in essence, that the “stock whence [he] sprang” was peopled by well-armed frontier types with violent proclivities, Russell reflects:
Reading about them, I felt [...] what? Not pride, exactly.
But actually: more like a felt lack. Like something should be in me, but isn’t. Has been lopped off, in fact, and tingles like a phantom limb.
This phantom-limb feeling haunts my body and my mind. In my body, it’s diffuse, like the dark applause of bats leaving a cave. In my mind, it’s this Cheshire grin floating in a void.
So, Russell finds himself attracted to the manly, be they prototypes (legendary hockey bruiser John Brophy) or eccentrics (snake venom inoculator; Amish baseball phenoms), in hopes that by training his attention on them he will shed the myopia of subjective bias and might gain a clarifying understanding of his own angst. But the phantom limb lives in all his writing, his every sentence—it seems to do his writing, at times. And the suspicion it attempts to exhaust is that the key to what that “felt lack” is, specifically, resides in his father.
The irony in all this is that Russell’s dad cannot stand the idea of being written about. “If I read one [...] word about this,” Russell Sr. says, “this or anything I’ve said in the past eight days—that’s it. Don’t bother coming back home.” It is a routine oft replayed between the two of them: father acidly questions the son’s choice to write, which is to become “smarmy,” one of the “intelligentsia,” while son labors mightily to stand his ground and still preserve affection, respect, and deference for dear old dad. The collection takes on a certain meta quality when the reader is granted such a glimpse behind the curtain, suggesting that this particular production almost never was. Dad doesn’t want son to be a writer. Son feels like a writer, is a writer. The ground between them cracks, but never yawns into a rift, because dad and son do, in fact, love each other. But why even include this drama if the author proves his mettle so admirably when venturing outside himself? Is it boyish insolence to brazenly do what he was expressly forbidden from doing?
It’s not all betrayal. I am doing this for reasons beyond the personal. I think. I have to unearth + drag into the light the hissing, congenital demons that are bleeding me dry. Yes. I have to stake them right in the heart. I have to, because I won’t allow them to sink their teeth into one more Russell.
That “one more Russell” is, specifically, Kent Russell, as opposed to, say, potential Russells of the future. He is not bequeathing to posterity a perspective on how to handle that Classic Russell Turmoil because, as he would have it, no other Russells are beset by it. His Grandfathers are unalloyed in their pride while looking upon their pasts. His father exhibits more contradictory behavior because Russell is able to observe him at length, but his attitude is as inexorable as a rolling boulder. Russell desires that quality for himself while simultaneously wishing to debunk it in his father. “Christ alive do I want to break through the frozen sea of his certainty. See him plunged finally into ambiguity. But in taking an ice ax to his footing, I would cause us both to go for a swim.”
The “felt lack,” then, is a Hamlet-like waffling, teetering on the brink of action but hindered by unceasing reflection, which is the writer’s burden and gift. But maybe Russell is shortchanging his relatives’ reflective capacities if he assumes they are immune to uncertainty. Or maybe he’d rather not face that conviction only comes with a lifetime of labor. If he wants their mithradate of the spirit so he can soldier on unhobbled by the debility of doubt, he must practice a regular inoculation.
Or, finally, it may be that his beef isn’t with a confidence he can’t access, but rather with his father’s refusal to admit weakness of any kind, and the author’s grand rebellion is precisely to disarm himself through writing. The perhaps inelegant interiority of this first collection is a statement of Self, a proclamation that this rising Russell sees manhood a little differently, more stripped, more vulnerable, softer.
In a late essay, Russell spends a couple of weeks with a garrulous and unlucky Australian entrepreneur trying to turn a remote island into a wellness retreat for the wealthy. He eventually loses patience with all the feel-good mumbo jumbo. “The more he droned on about the enlightened man’s need for a spot to sit still [...] the more certain I became that no matter where I go to find myself [...] I’ll keep unearthing this gem: I am shipwrecked with a self I both fear for and loathe.”
Let us hope Kent Russell can bury this gem peacefully, and keep his considerable powers turned outward.
GEOFFREY YOUNG is a writer living in Brooklyn.