John Irving, Tom Wolfe, and Male Heroes in Crisis

John Irving, Tom Wolfe, and Male Heroes in Crisis

There once was an ideal masculine hero, full of manly characteristics including strength, courage, forthrightness and loyalty. He strode purposefully, possibly carrying weapons, across the pages of Hemingway novels and nabbed the bad guys in books by Raymond Chandler, strong-jawed and resolute. That archetype is history. Ambitious recent novels by celebrated authors hinge on masculinity in crisis: In these books, literary heavyweights including Junot Diaz, Michael Chabon, Tom Wolfe, John Irving and Richard Ford are entranced and bedeviled by men who have failed to thrive and failed to grow up, who’ve been unfaithful to their wives and generally not up to the task. Does this signal the decline of men? We present the evidence; you be the judge.

Big Appetites: Archy Stallings
A few years ago, Michael Chabon published a book that could serve as a primer for the most recent crop of male protagonists: “Manhood for Amateurs.” What is it about grown-up manliness that is so difficult to achieve? Let’s start with Archy Stallings, the large-but-not-quite-in-charge hero of Chabon’s latest hit novel, “Telegraph Avenue.” Archy is the master of two domains: his record store and the dinner table. (A synesthete, Archy thinks of food musically, and of music with savor, e.g. “the belly meat of jazz, salty and well marbled with funk.”) He can quote from old kung fu movies and impersonate comic book villains. But when it comes to grown-up pursuits like being a good husband to his wife, Gwen (especially after he cheats on her) and a good father both to their unborn child and to a 14-year-old boy–evidently fathered by Archy–who shows up on their doorstep, his response is pure avoidance: helplessly enduring Gwen’s rage and filling the hole it opens with more food. (At least when it comes to grub, he’s good at sharing.) It takes Archy nearly 500 pages to figure out a simple trick to make it better: apologizing.

Cheating Heart: Yunior
Yunior, the man who narrates Junot Diaz‘s bestselling collection of linked stories, “This is How You Lose Her,” begins like this: “I’m not a bad guy…. I’m like everybody else: weak, full of mistakes, but basically good.” This not exactly robust pronouncement is made after Yunior cheats on his girlfriend, Magda, and (more troubling for Yunior) he is caught. Like the men in “Telegraph Avenue,” Yunior’s compass points are sci-fi lore, comic books and movie fight scenes. When Yunior’s other woman writes to Magda, spilling the raunchy details, “the Letter hits like a Star Trek grenade and detonates everything.” Magda, to put it mildly, is pissed. (Like Gwen in “Telegraph Avenue,” the women of “This is How You Lose Her” are defined negatively by how difficult their lives are made by the men in them.) Yunior’s pleading response is somewhat childish: “It’s because I love you, mami. I know this sounds like a load of doo-doo, but it’s true.” And so it goes, with Diaz’s men trying to be true with only a modicum of the enthusiasm they muster for their seemingly unavoidable cheating.

Masculinity on Steroids: Nestor Camacho
Setting out to do for Miami what he did for Manhattan in “The Bonfire of the Vanities,” Tom Wolfe‘s novel, “Back to Blood,” reflects the city’s manic energy and burbling melting pot in its prose: rife with exclamation points, torrid inner thoughts ::::::for some reason set off by a braille of six adjacent colons:::::: and spelled-out laughter, e.g.: “pornnnahhHAHAHock hock hock addiction.” As you might expect, the men in these souped-up pages are no namby-pamby pantywaists. Nestor Camacho, Wolfe’s Cuban cop hero, bristles with brawn (and adjectives): “an entire mountainscape of muscles, huge boulders, sharp cliffs, deep cuts, and iron gorges . . . an entire muscle terrain”; looking in the mirror, Camacho continues to wax geographic: “five feet and seven inches’ worth of big smooth rock formations, real Gibraltars, traps, delts, lats, pecs, biceps, triceps, obliques, abs, glutes, quads–dense!” Bulging with so much muscle and sinew, Wolfe’s characters aren’t left with much room for complex, human emotions, and the men seem more like vivid caricatures of Miami eccentrics than actual people. (And let’s not even talk about what happens in the bedroom.)

Romantic Confusion: Billy Abbot
Another maestro of the over-the-top, John Irving has created a less macho hero in Billy Abbott, narrator of “In One Person.” Billy is equally thrilled and confused by sex and sexuality, alternately falling in love with his handsome stepfather, the local wrestling star and the town librarian before putting a name to his condition: bisexuality. Taking us from the ’50s, through the AIDS crisis and to the present, Irving shows that we’ve come a long way toward acceptance of alternative identities, but we’ve still got far to go. This uncertainty plays out in Billy’s romantic choices and self-definition, from wearing his sister’s bra as a teen while reading James Baldwin‘s “Giovanni’s Room” to later on, when his lover, a pre-operative transsexual, tells him she doesn’t know “who or what you’re going to leave me for.” As Billy says, “We are formed by what we desire,” but our current framework of masculinity doesn’t always accommodate desires that stray from the standard.

Bad Role Models: Dell Parsons
It might sound pretty cool to have bank robbers for parents–unless they’re not particularly skilled bank robbers. Dell Parson’s father never quite found himself: He was an Air Force supply officer, a car salesman and a real estate agent before becoming an entrepreneur in the stolen beef trade. Not very good at any of those pursuits, he decides to start robbing banks. Dell’s parents are quickly caught and jailed, leaving Dell abandoned at 15, without a guide into his adulthood. Richard Ford titles his novel “Canada,” but it remains an American story of transformation. A family friend takes Dell north across the border, where he’s taken in by a possibly violent American hermit. Here, in an unknown landscape, Dell struggles to find the path that evaded his father. Like Irving’s hero, Dell narrates his story as a man in old age, remembering events that defined him decades earlier. But by this point, it’s too late.

Men of War: Billy Lynn and John Bartle
No survey of skewed and thwarted manhood would be complete without an account of our nation’s soldiers, who’ve endured a decade of America’s poorly defined wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Two recent, National Book Award-nominated novels provided just such accounts: Kevin Powers‘ “The Yellow Birds” and Ben Fountain‘s “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk.” In the former, Private John Bartle is tortured by his inability to save the life of a friend and comrade-in-arms. Back home, he is lost, even further away from the self-definition he’d hoped to achieve by joining the Army. In “Billy Lynn,” the title character has an opposite but equally alienating experience of the Iraq war. Billy is part of the Army’s battle-winning Bravo Company, who return to America as heroes and media sensations: The men are taken on a victory tour that culminates in an appearance at the Super Bowl in front of thousands of screaming fans who treat them as gods.

Humbert Humbert Syndrom: Ritchie Shepherd
It’s not just American men in fiction who are behaving badly: Award-winning British novelist James Meek has a hero in his recent novel, “The Heart Broke In,” whose troubles are familiar. Ritchie Shepherd is an aging rocker-turned-TV host of a talent show called “Teen Makeover.” (The name of his old band, Lazygods, attests to Ritchie’s life philosophy.) Ritchie is a modern version of Tolstoy’s Oblonsky in “Anna Karenina”: moral in his immorality, charming even (or especially) when he’s cheating. About Ritchie’s current illicit dalliance, Meek writes: “It was his intention to enjoy it for as long as he felt like it, then end it tenderly.” Fatefully, Ritchie has sampled the talent pool of his own show, and when his sister Bec’s spurned lover, a vicious tabloid sensationalist named Val Oatman, gets a whiff of Ritchie’s sin, he goes in for the kill, blackmailing Ritchie into giving up the dirt on his own sister. As good as Ritchie’s wandering heart is, he lacks the fortitude to stand up to Val in the face of public disgrace. 

Accidental Family Man: Harry Silver
Male writers don’t have the market cornered on troubled, underperforming male heroes. The title of A.M. Homes‘ new novel speaks for all of these poor guys: “May We Be Forgiven.” (Please?) There are many ways for an aimless man to get some direction, but Homes’ novel presents one of the darkest. Harry Silver is a professor of “Nixon Studies,” whose future–in the history department and with his distant wife, Claire–is uncertain. His brother, George, is more materially successful, with children that Harry lacks, but he’s also more unhinged. When he smashes his car into someone else’s, George is disturbingly untroubled that the other driver is in a coma. He comes home unexpectedly from the hospital, where he’s been placed in the psych ward, to find his brother asleep in his bed with his wife, Jane. Harry wakes to his brother bashing Jane’s head in with a lamp. And now Harry, kicked to the curb by Claire, is the executor of George’s estate, the legal guardian of his strange children and the occupant of his house. Unlikely as it sounds, it all helps Harry learn how to be a man.

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