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American Male Despair

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Tuesday, March 1, 2011

American Male Despair

When I was in grad school, Campbell McGrath was teaching a poetry workshop, which I wasn't enrolled in.  If you don't know who he is, he's a poet, and a pretty important one in the poetry world.  Anyway, he was teaching this class and one night he introduced the concept of "American Male Despair," which he went on to describe as the quintessential angry young American male who can't quite seem to grow up, weighted down by his own self-absorption, and loathing, self and otherwise.  This state of perpetual pissed-off adolescence leaves him irritable, unsatisfied, and continuously bitching about his being irritable and unsatisfied.

Then someone in the class raised a hand and said, "Oh, you mean like Joe Clifford?"

I freely admit I am a type, the classic man-boy of American literature and film, who has dragged his heels kicking and screaming into adulthood, refusing to accept the responsibilities others have long ago, or if I have, it was not done without a great deal of bitching over the injustice of it all, highlighting in particular those injustices I feel that have been committed against me.

I bring this up today because of a post Greg Kim made on his blog, "Sit Down Casper," in which he dissected the reasons certain films he loved the first time failed upon second viewing.  One of those films, High Fidelity, very well may be my favorite movie (or in the top three after Casablanca and Rocky).  It would be easy to dismiss the criticism if it had come from a writer I deplore and consider a talentless, undeserving hack (ala Diaz), but I like this Greg Kim and his writing (very much), though I've only recently met him through my buddy, Tom Pitts.  But Tom Pitts is one righteous mutherfucker, and we lived through a ring of hell at Hepatitis Heights, so if Tom vouches for you, I take that suggestion seriously.

There is a prevailing theme pervading the art that has impacted me most in my life--
Catcher in the Rye, On the Road, the Replacements, High Fidelity, even Rocky.  The theme of growing up, kicking screaming bitching.

In a sense, it is hard to feel much sympathy for the middle-class, white (good looking) male.  In a sense?  Fuck, it's impossible.  With all the privileges afforded us, that we go around stomping our feet and raising a fist is downright offensive.  In the rest of the world, there is not the luxury to go traipsing through Europe with daddy's money looking for one's self.  But this isn't the "rest of the world"; this is America, goddammit.

Or maybe not.  I mean, this trope has been a staple of literature since Cain and Oedipus, and well on into Hamlet and Jack's various organs.  And I've seen the same criticism leveled repeatedly, as if pointing out the incongruity with adult, functioning societal mores renders all root feelings any less valid.  In short, the sighted man wondering why the blind can't just see.  Or perhaps it is the other way around.

What are you rebelling against?  What have you got.  I am in good company, even if I am no longer active on the front lines, that is if I ever was.  Most of the wars we wage are internal, with ourselves, and not quite as apparent as we believe.  For every time you are called out in a graduate poetry workshop, there are the high school reunions, populated by persons you by and large despised, who only remember you as a "quiet kid" and not raging murderous.

I am not going to attempt to analyze the "angry young man" syndrome, the underlying core beliefs and sociological infrastructures that erect its necessity.  You can call it "immaturity," "whining," or otherwise, or you can lay a critical foundation "justifying" it, neither of which do a damn thing.

But you do get some great art out of that struggle.


At March 2, 2011 at 3:17 PM , Blogger Greg Kim said...

I saw Nick Hornby read from High Fidelity at Clean Well-Lighted a decade or so ago. Hornby had a Phil Collins sensibility, which was disconcerting at first, but after a while I got used to it. Most of the audience looked like they were filling seats at a free event. Hornby said he just sold the rights to the book and it was assumed he made some money on the deal.

A woman asked him if success had changed him. He said that he could now afford to rent a writing studio and he could buy any CD he wants.

At March 2, 2011 at 5:24 PM , Blogger Joe Clifford said...

I also liked About a Boy (the book) quite a bit. I started reading both Long Way Down and Slam and wasn't impressed. Part of the problem with writing is you really need years and years and years to get it right. When you're cranking them out, the work really suffers. He also wrote the screenplay to An Education, which is surprisingly good.


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