Rumble Young Man Rumble
By Benjamin Cavell
Knopf, 208pp., $22.00
A general rule of thumb I use when reading short stories is to read the first few lines--you know pretty quickly if the writer has what it takes when the first sentence reaches out and grabs your attention. For example, the first line of "The Death of the Cool," in Benjamin Cavell's new collection is this: "Any of the people you pass on the street could pretend to trip and stumble into you and sorry sorry my mistake and pour a glass full of cyanide onto your bare forearm." This sentence pretty much grabs you by the front of your shirt and asks, can you handle this?'
For those that are up for the challenge, Cavell welcomes us to his own twisted universe where violence lurks around every corner; a sporting goods jock pushes the boundary of masculinity to absurd lengths and an insurance broker is haunted by the idea of total risk elimination. Populated by former boxers, broken down football players, and wanna-be gangsters, Cavell's neighborhood is smack dab between Old Hemingway Town and New Thom Jones Falls. Not exactly a great neighborhood if you are a casual reader and just happen to meander into his dark little corner of the literary world, but for those seeking a new voice that's not afraid to mix it up a bit, then pull up a stool and let's get busy.
In the '40s and '50s there used to be magazines like Argosy and Manly Action that specialized in these types of stories; hardboiled he-men that uncovered spy rings and broken jaws, swaggering with all the vim that a post war hero could muster. Eventually these boilerplate pulps faded off, but the desire to tap into this inner reserve of aggression and revenge has never really disappeared. We now commonly witness it in movies, video games and on television. Today's hero still has clenched jaws but is also a fashion plate. He uses force liberally when the situation demands it, and his moral code has been replaced with a selfish dedication to personal survival. Nowhere is this more evident than in the story "Balls, Balls, Balls," where Cavell takes the concept of the self-made tough guy and turns it on its head. Logan Bryant is a salesman in sporting goods. He lies about the fact that he was a former Navy SEAL, he has issues with the size of his manhood, and he assures us that he is absolutely positive that he could kill a man if necessary. In the longest story, "Evolution," another muscle-head convinces himself that his girlfriend wants him to murder her father, but when it comes to pulling the trigger, he doubts his own take on reality. And in "Highway" two very real killers have a moment of consciousness and decide to spare the patrons of a roadside diner.
Cavell's stories reflect a new twisted type of hero: damaged, unsure, and much too self-aware. The men in these stories are veterans of the gender wars; caught between action and thought, trapped between the code of the old ways and today's new idea of masculinity. These men are the walking wounded of today's fluctuating social rules--do they strike out or do they strike a pose?