The Broken Boys Club
Mike Sager Intimately Knows The Men He Writes About--He's Just Like Them
Write what you know--the writer's adage. Some people dispute this advice because it suggests that writers play it safe and recycle worn material, but the axiom is rooted in the idea that the only way to get at the nuances and telling paradoxes of a subject is to be intimately familiar with them.
Mike Sager, an Esquire writer at large who has never been accused of playing anything safe, tells his own story again and again in tandem with the stories of sundry subjects in his nonfiction collection Wounded Warriors: Those for Whom the War Never Ends (DaCapo Press). And the surprise is not that the material feels anything but worn, it's that the story of a stoic man revealing other stoic men is not terse and belligerent, but expansive and dignified and vulnerable.
Personally and professionally, Sager challenges the age-old maternal admonition to line up, follow the rules, and avoid drugs because otherwise you'll never amount to anything. And even as he himself wonders whether he has amounted to anything, he writes like he amounts to the best voice in the genre Walt Harrington calls "intimate journalism": "Everyone seems to have a kind of psychic slash mark bifurcating their lives. Waitress slash sculptor. Bartender slash musician. It's like the whole world is on hold, phone cradled to ear, Muzak playing."
He's a detail-picking savant: "Ronald K. Hoeflin is a mild man with graying hair who wears his watch on a string around his neck." And he uses verbs like "vogue," as in "He vogues his loose wrist."
But here's the proof that Sager is sublime. Somehow you won't be at all surprised to learn that the above lines are referring to hipsters in New York's East Village, a man with an IQ of 164, and a gay Puerto Rican drug dealer. He's that good. His words are worth a thousand pictures.
Oh, and here's Sager immersed in an L.A. gang about which he is writing: "Yogi, Lil' Sleeper, Panther, and a white guy named Mike, your reporter, were taking turns crouching behind a wall, doing blasts, taking hits of crack."
Sager's life is a mess. His demons aren't cute, cool, superficial, or for your benefit. And the mingling of his and other men's brokenness, conveyed in prose that aches with their disappointment, is the raw subject of this book. The title story is about seriously injured Iraq war vets recovering at Camp Lejeune, N.C. Sergeant Durgala describes their situation this way:
Lance Corporal Robert J. Wild, or "Wildman," is a 22-year-old Brat Pitt look-alike. "Before, I was really fun," he says. He had hobbies and studied carpentry. He even built a 2,000-square-foot house for a foster family, which made him feel really good because he had been a foster kid.
Then he joined the Marines, went to Iraq, and got thrown head-first into a wall by a rocket-propelled grenade. "The main problem," he says, "is my frontal lobe. It's not functioning."
Today, Wildman's affect is flat and his short-term memory is shot. "It makes you feel like you're stupid," he says. "People don't understand what your problem is. . . . So all they do is judge you."
Over a pre-dawn cigarette, Wildman states matter-of-factly that therapy doesn't seem to be helping; he's pretty sure he's getting worse. "I don't know what to say," Sager writes. "I put my hand on his shoulder and squeeze, and then I pat his back a few times--hard, manly pats, like you'd do with a big friendly dog."
Wildman gently refuses Sager's awkward gesture: "'It's cool, bro,'" he says, "'don't worry about it. It's a normal thing for me.'"
You can't talk about men interrupted in America without talking about men of color, and Sager tackles Al Sharpton among many others. Sharpton speaks with a voice reminiscent of the battle-weary but determined vets. "'To a white mind,' says Sharpton, 'it's tangible wins and losses that count in the world. . . . To a black mind, I'm successful 'cause I'm still here. I'm a survivor. I carry on.'"
It's the last story--the one in which Sager has the least access to his alter-ego subject and is therefore most self-revelatory--that lies at the heart of this book. "Hunting Marlon Brando" is about just that: Sager's quest to find and interview the reclusive actor. Whether Sager gets his interview becomes immaterial, although it certainly wasn't to Sager at the time. This story is about the quest, about a man--quixotic and in search of a redemption that will never materialize--trying. "The measure of a man," he writes, "is what he does in a crisis, how he acts when things don't go as envisioned. All you can do is forge ahead."
And Brando is the perfect white whale. First, he'd become really fat. Second, he invented the ideal man as we understand him today: handsome, flawed, uncivilized, but still somehow heroic. Sager quoting Harper's magazine:
That's the truth Sager reveals via himself and his cast of deviants: With due respect to mothers everywhere, the problem with breaking the rules, deliberately or inadvertently, is not that you won't amount to anything--it's that whether you do or whether you don't, the world will tell you what's broken is you, not the rules. And sometimes you'll believe them--and that's when you break. Wounded Warriors welcomes us to the Broken Boys Club, and reminds us that we're in very good company.
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