- Hurt Like A Man
University of Pittsburgh Press
240 Pages; Print, $16.00
One phrase comes to mind again and again while reading Brad Felver's story collection, The Dogs of Detroit: toxic masculinity.
Colleen Clemens, in her essay "What We Mean When We Say, 'Toxic Masculinity'" for The Southern Poverty Law Center's Teaching Tolerance project (tolerance.org), asserts that the term refers to a gender-construct theory—that it does not label all men as violent or evil, but that it is a "dangerous brand of masculinity" that can reinforce or encourage violence as the only or best answer. Clemens says that
in a culture that equates masculinity with physical power, some men and boys will invariably feel like they are failing at 'being a man.' For these particular men and boys, toxic masculinity has created a vacuum in their lives that can be filled through violence.
It is sometimes hard to tell whether Felver's narratives reflect toxic masculinity or interrogate it, though, in every story, we witness his characters grapple with what it means to be male—to be a man, to become a man, to prove manliness—and what it costs each individual and those around him.
These stories are not for the squeamish. To read them is to confront brutality, cruelty, rape, and anguish. Animals are tortured or killed or both. Women are gone or dead or might as well be. Many will find this is not a book that can be binged on a lazy afternoon or long flight. The reader will likely need to take breaks, to come up for air, to leave Felver's world for a bit—even if he is showing us the worst our own has to offer.
The relationships painted most vividly here are between males—brothers or father figures and sons. Ten out of fourteen stories look at how men relate to one another (often through or with violence) or fail to do so, often resulting in estrangement or disconnection.
Felver gives us one of the most haunting examples of brotherly violence with the second story, "Throwing Leather," in which two troubled teens are tossed together by circumstance and who cope with abandonment by beating one another bloody. The unnamed speaker explains that he, his father, Charley, and Charley's mother "became a sort of leftover family" after "[his] mother and Charley's father died in a car accident that left many questions unanswered. (His trousers had been at his knees, and she hadn't been wearing her seatbelt)." The boys bullied and threatened by the speaker's father, practice cruelty on animals and each other, proving how tough they are over and over until Charley's violence goes too far and one of them must be declared "the nudge" (the weakling) once and for all.
Many of the stories' protagonists are virtually interchangeable. It is easy to imagine the abused boy from one story growing up to be the violent man in another. The protagonist and speaker in "Unicorn Stew," abandoned by his father and left with his friend Bev and her broken family, becomes part of that abuse cycle. He witnesses Bev and her wispy mother being beaten up by Bev's father and is himself bullied at school. He and Bev punch each other to gain some control over their bodies. "Bev and me are only in the fifth grade, and we can't do much about [being beaten up]," the speaker says. "So we make new bruises on each other, and they mix in with the old ones, and then we don't know where any of them came from." Then, in an ominous turn, Bev's dad calls the speaker "his kid," and the reader knows what Bev's dad does to the people he claims as his own. That boy could be "you" in the second-person story "How to Throw a Punch," who learns that "Once you learn how to [throw a punch], you want to do it often. The desire to throw a punch will overtake its rare necessity." And "you" could...