Generational insecurity locks horns with machismo in this hybrid collection of personal journalism and first-person profiles.
Believer and n+1 essayist Russell is a type of millennial George Plimpton: the nerd conquering his fears by plunging into the unknown. “I have come to fetishize opaque brutes,” writes the author, who proceeds to meet some cautionary examples. He visited the annual Gathering of the Juggalos, the subculture of Insane Clown Posse fans—people who “weren’t born into the respectable middle class and didn’t see a path that led there, so they said fuck it.” Russell spent an even scarier amount of time with Tim Friede, who regularly gets bitten by poisonous snakes as he pursues his long-term goal of developing a “Swiss-army immune system.” Another superhuman, hockey legend John Brophy, explained to Russell how he spent a lifetime cracking heads on the ice without losing his own in the process. The author also took a class in gory special effects makeup with Hollywood’s “Sultan of Splatter” Tom Savini. On a remote Australian isle, he met a former marketing executive–turned–modern-day Robinson Crusoe. In between these and other essays, Russell weaves together his own story, focused mainly on growing up with his loudmouth Vietnam vet father, who was constantly trying to beef up the kid’s testosterone (“He thought it was important that I should greet Death as part of my morning routine”). Russell is an observant, skillful and funny writer who draws out the essence of each person he meets, but the framing device—in which each story becomes another chapter in his own process of self-realization—becomes a wearying shtick. Russell himself, staggering between ironic detachment and overt pathos, ultimately becomes a grating witness to his own life.
An ambitious but patchy debut, better in parts than as a whole.