"I am homesick most for the place I've never known," writes Kent Russell in his debut essay collection. He's referring specifically to Martins Ferry, Ohio, his father's childhood hometown — but it could be anywhere. The essays in I Am Sorry to Think I Have Raised a Timid Son find the young author miles away from his native Florida, at a music festival in Illinois, on a small island near Australia, and other out-of-the-way locales. He never seems to feel quite at home, or maybe he hasn't yet decided what home really is to him.
That kind of restlessness isn't uncommon, particularly among the young. What is uncommon is the wisdom, humor and generosity that run through Russell's book. As much a memoir as an essay collection, Timid Son is a surprising, beautiful book, at once tough and tender, hilarious and dark, and above all, deeply original.
One of the book's most striking essays finds Russell attending the Gathering of the Juggalos, a four day music festival dedicated to the "horrorcore" band Insane Clown Posse and like-minded musicians and performers. Insane Clown Posse is an endlessly controversial band; their most successful single was called "Santa's a Fat Bitch," and the FBI has classified the Juggalos (the band's fans) as a "loosely organized hybrid gang." They're known as much for their evil-clown makeup as for their love of marijuana and Faygo brand soda.
It is, as Russell notes, "a snarker's Holy Grail." But he declines every opportunity to make fun of the festival attendees, even as he's subjected to glares and a never ending stream of sprayed soft drinks. He ends up leaving the festival in a hurry, clearly unimpressed, but there's nothing condescending about his writing. The Juggalos aren't Russell's kind of people, but he doesn't ever treat them as anything less than people, any better or worse than him.
The Juggalos represent a kind of extreme that appeals to Russell. He finds the same kind of reckless spirit in Tim Friede, the "Mithridates of Fond du Lac," a Wisconsin man who's spent much of his life injecting himself with snake venom in an attempt to build immunity to the world's deadliest creatures. Friede's obsession is total; his wife left him after he refused to give up his hobby. "I was sleeping in a tent," he confesses to Russell. "My two kids are fifteen and six. But self-immunization is my entire life." Russell visits Friede to see what makes him tick, and "to goad him into an unprecedented ordeal: five venomous snakebites in forty-eight hours."
Friede accepts, and Russell spends the next days with him, drinking whiskey and beer as he tries to figure out why he's chosen this life for himself. "Brotherman, there's no black mamba on earth with venom enough to kill me," Friede tells Russell. "I control them. I control death."
It's impossible to know if Friede will ever lose that control, or whether he even had it in the first place. Many of the people we encounter in Timid Son don't even pretend to have that kind of control over anything, even their own lives. You can include Russell in that camp — the book seems to be a coming to terms, of sorts, for him and his family. (Russell's sister Karen is also an author; she was a Pulitzer Prize finalist for her 2011 novel Swamplandia!) In fact, the best essay in the collection isn't an essay at all, but a series of interstitial stories about Russell's 2013 visit to his father, who has a complicated relationship with his son.
The two share a certain gruffness and an affinity for cheap booze, but not too much else. They don't fully understand each other, even as Kent senses himself transforming into his father. (Looking in a mirror, he thinks, "Now, I am become Dad, destroyer of beers.") But even if they don't quite get it, they seem to have to a common understanding — two men who never really belonged, each unable to fully grasp the particular kind of unbelonging that the other is struggling with. In a book filled with fascinating essays, it's the story of their relationship, suffused with both dread and hope, that makes Russell's debut one of the most notable of the year so far. And after all, "What's dread, what's paranoia," Russell writes, "when the ground you're standing on might fall away at any moment?"