- Violent Adventure: Contemporary Fiction by American Men
In Violent Adventure: Contemporary Fiction by American Men, Marilyn C. Wesley examines the relationship between masculine identity and violent fiction. Wesley’s ambition is to avoid the facile dismissal of violent male narratives as either the inevitable product of innate male brutality or an incipient force fueling social violence. She eschews focused examination of “the brutality…[and] the immorality of violence” (7), setting out, instead, to revise “customary beliefs about masculinity and power” (3) through careful analysis of male adventure stories. Thus her primary target is the presumed relationship between “masculinity and power in conventional adventure” (6). Violent Adventure begins with a preface explaining Wesley’s personal motivation, as a mother of two sons, for researching violent male adventure narratives and a short introduction, which establishes the ground for her later discussion of violence and adventure narratives. The remainder of the work is divided into three sections–“Violent Constructions,” “Failure of Development,” and “Interrogation of Community”–each containing two or three chapters.
Part one (“Violent Constructions”) begins in its first chapter with the analysis of popular writer and war correspondent, Richard Harding Davis, which links the success of men with their ability to engage in “constructive” violence–constructive, inasmuch as they promote imperialistic economic agendas. Violence nurtures Davis’s [End Page 381] heroes into maturity just as it promotes the “capitalist enterprise…[they] champion” (18), and women characters link these heroes to “the culture” they represent. But the strategies for individual masculine identification valorized in Davis’s fiction are altered by cultural shifts toward modernity. In chapter two, Wesley uses an anthology of short stories edited by Charles Grayson (Stories for Men) to illustrate how narrative violence in the modern period “generally destroys rather than develops protagonists” (29). She does an adequate job of pointing out how modern shifts toward “mass force” and the alienation of the individual modify previous notions about the relationship between violence and emerging masculine identity, but her work here would have profited from a more thorough look at the important writers in the collection: Ring Lardner, Thomas Wolfe, Dashiell Hammett, H. L. Mencken, William Saroyan, and screenwriter Ben Hecht.
Part two (“Failure of Development”) constitutes the strongest sections of Violent Adventure. Across two chapters (chapters three and four), Wesley uses Tobias Wolff’s This Boy’s Life, Pickney Benedict’s Town Smokes, Richard Ford’s Rock Springs, and Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian to illuminate how violence in male narratives has moved away from the trope of violence as a means of sanctioning social systems to the trope of violence as symptomatic of a “degenerate social system” (61). Wesley’s discussion of the Western adventure is particularly engaging. She convincingly illustrates how realism in Ford’s novel parallels “ordinary, contemporary Western life” with a failure of parental “power and order” and how the “sublime” in McCarthy’s novel exposes a “politics of destruction” in Western history that “cannot be rewritten as progress.” Her use of Lacan to illustrate how Rock Springs and Blood Meridian “challenge the formula Western” (80) is both apt and convincing.
Part three (“Interrogation of Community”) continues the argument begun in part two with the Western to now consider a discussion of war fiction (chapter five) and the mystery (chapter six). It presents an engaging and well-articulated critique of the relationship between violent representation and culture. In chapter seven, Wesley effectively completes her timeline with a discussion of Russell Banks’s Continental Drift and Don DeLillo’s Libra in light of postmodern theory and thought. She ends her trek from the turn-of-the-century writing of Richard Harding Davis, which began the body of her discussion, through the modern period, with a convincing argument that the postmodern works of Banks and DeLillo highlight “the inadequate but necessary correlation between national ideals and individual lives and…[dismiss] violence as the productive connection between the citizen and power” (164).
The conclusion that ends Violent Adventures is more than a mere summation of the previous text. It...