Dudes Look Like a Maybe
Journalist Charlie Leduff Goes Looking For The Rugged American Man--And May Be Still Looking For Him
In 1996, Paula Cole devoted an entire song to her search for the American Male: a rough and rugged Marlboro Man to replace the lazy deadbeat who, despite paying the bills, spent too much time drinking beer and watching television. "Where have all the cowboys gone?" she repeatedly whined, not knowing that a decade later, journalist Charlie LeDuff would have the answer: Paula, sweetheart, they've all gone to dress in drag and ride steers at the gay rodeo in Oklahoma City.
Such is one of the 11 theses in LeDuff's Us Guys: The True and Twisted Mind of the American Man, a testosterone-fueled travelogue that offers up a Whitman's Sampler of 21st-century masculinity. Unfortunately for Paula Cole and any other subscribers to the idea of the "classical male," there are no Hercules or Dirty Harrys to be found among the hard-boiled Detroit detectives and retired horse-track gamblers that litter these pages. "No such man has ever existed and no man probably ever will," LeDuff writes. "It may be that he prefers men. It may be that he was born weak-bodied. He may have been abandoned. He may be dull-witted. He may live in a trailer, or a ranch house, or a squat city apartment."
Ouch. Talk about a swift kick to the collective nuts. LeDuff's reportage depicts the American patriarchy as a crumbling institution whose citizens are not leaders of the pack so much as they are wounded animals yearning for peace of mind. Existentially confused teenage boys should be cautioned when reading this book: There are no father figures to be found here. The closest you come is a sycophantic reverend in Oklahoma who desperately clings to his young male lover, Baby Boy, and his dreams of breaking into the rodeo scene. Illustrating both the reckless folly of youth and the blind devotion of the lovesick, the episode is characteristic of the desperate facades these emotionally damaged males put up for society. "It made him feel good to be on the boy's arm," LeDuff says of the reverend's infatuation. "Their life was more a costume ball, a masquerade, a dress-up cowboy fantasy." Pages later, the reverend confesses to a midlife crisis.
Us Guys is rank with the stench of mythologies gone sour. The American gangster, that rebel of the road who took what he wanted at gunpoint, turns out to be nothing more than a tired old man from Tulsa, Okla., named Elmer Steele whose buried loot is nothing more than a dream for those who knew him. LeDuff's travels beside a white homicide detective named Mark Carlisle reads like the hard-boiled narrative of a crime novel until you come across pictures of his family shuffled within a stack of crime-scene photographs. Gen. George Armstrong Custer is resurrected as an actor who portrays the historical figure's last stand for the amusement of tourists at an Indian reservation in Montana. All these are no different from Guennadi Tregroub, a Russian émigré who makes his living as a circus clown. Described as "the sad-hearted clown, the vodka drinker, chainsmoker, the Russian fatalist, [and] the orphan who makes children laugh," Tregroub might as well be the patron saint for his aforementioned peers for all the crying he does underneath his faux exterior of nonchalance.
Even in packs, American men cannot find permanent comfort but only temporary relief. You'll be surprised to find that fight clubs really do exist outside of Chuck Palahniuk novels; the club in Oakland, Calif., where men from broken homes meet to pummel the shit out of each other comes across as a misguided attempt to live out a cult movie's weak-kneed philosophy. Equally pathetic are the retired Floridians who waste their lives at a horse track outside of Miami, or the Pentecostal preachers who speak in tongues and handle rattlers at revival meetings, or the young male models who crowd together in ragged New York apartments dreaming of fame before the graying hair and the sagging man tits start to sprout. If this sounds somewhat judgmental, that's only because LeDuff is equally harsh on his subjects.
More frightening than these men and their lack of personal responsibility is how interchangeable their dilemmas and environments are. Though the following passage describes the Oakland fight club, it might as well be describing the scene of a historical re-enactment, a raucous Burning Man festival, or a back-porch gathering of men shooting the breeze: "Get beaten, lose, have your pants pulled down in front of the mob, stew in your own blood and humiliation. The individual is destroyed here, left in a wet lump for the whole world to see. You become less, you are nothing. Then you are rebuilt, taught how to fight, given worth by the group, worth you never got as a kid, a family to belong to." Family? Sounds more like a stereotypical frat house.