Favorite essays, I mean, out of the 2016 edition of The Best American Essays, edited by Jonathon Franzen. This is a compilation of essays by authors who, according to Franzen, took some sort of risk in their work, either in discussing their unpopular opinion, or writing in such a way that they may alienate their own family. He wanted the essayists incorporated into this edition to take on the tasks of firefighters; “…[their] job, while everyone else is fleeing the flames, is to run straight into them.”
Franzen certainly met his goal. Many of the essays hold troubling material: frank discussion of suicide, family abuse, questions of antisemitism, and homophobia are only some of the topics covered in the volume.
Some of the ones that stand out most in my mind are “Names”, “Namesake”, and “Bastards.”
“Names”, by Paul Crenshaw, and “Namesake”, by Mason Stokes, hold particularly interesting connections. “Names” is a blunt piece that discusses the nicknames of men when they serve in the military; as could be expected, the nicknames are often equal parts cruel and crude; “Keller was Killer and Weaver was Weiner and Penn was Penis or just a dick… Ramirez was Rape-Kit… Rhea became Ghonorrhea.” (37) Many of the nicknames are sexual in nature, and this phenomenon reinforces the hypermasculine machismo often found in the military. This machismo is a construction, and the author reveals how, behind their brash words and their loud bravado, the men he was around were no stronger or more capable of protecting themselves than other men would have been. “At eighteen we were barely grown boys wielding weapons of war while bombs went off in our little part of the world and the ground shook beneath us.”
Why did these boys drown their concerns and their anxieties behind names like Weiner or Ghonorrhea? Crenshaw writes later that “Perhaps all our words are only screens for what we might say if we were better people or perhaps we only use words that fit what world we find ourselves in.” These boys found themselves in a world that relied on bluster and bombast, and so they bluffed their behavior.
Crenshaw concludes; “But later that night after lights out, as we lay in our bunks in the darkness, we had no words to contain how we felt…There were no jokes, no called names. Only a hundred quiet conversations… whispering across the big bay dorm, ‘Hey Crenshaw, hey man, are you scared?'”. (39)
In their moments of quietude and fear, when they most needed to bolstered, their bluster could do nothing for them. It was not a loud declaration of patriotism or anger that they needed most, but a quiet word of reassurance and connection.
Similar is Stokes’ work “Namesake”, a description of the author coming out to his family and, while not summarily alienated, neither accepted. He uses the essay as a device to draw connection between himself and the uncle for which he was named, an uncle he always suspected to be homosexual. He describes discovering photos of his uncle’s military service during WWII, and his suspicions that the men he sees his uncle with are not all platonic war buddies. “There’s no way to describe this other than romantic. This isn’t the kind of physical contact that straight men love to perform, their heterosexuality affirmed and thus unimpeachable.” (282) Stokes writes about the history of segregating homosexual men and women apart from heterosexual men and women in this time in history, leading to one of the first visible gay communities in America’s history, and how the military’s stark stance on sexuality and gender performance allowed it to happen. It’s a curious phenomenon, contrasted with the environment of Crenshaw’s military bunker. Also curious is the connection across the importance of names, as Stokes shares Mason with his mysterious uncle and Crenshaw’s peers share the aspect of crudity, to connect them.
While there aren’t any obvious themes connecting the aforementioned essays and “Bastards”, by Lee Martin (excepting, possibly, anger), “Bastards” is a focused look at the effects of an angry husband and father on a family. Because Martin’s father lost his hands in a farming accident when Martin was an infant, he will never know the man his father was before he became an angry and temperamental man, and Martin will never know the kind of man he would have been without that angry influence shaping his life. “I would need years and years to escape the anger of that house, and even now, when I live a more gentle life, I still feel I’m fighting the rage my father left inside me…” (169)
These essays are not always easy to read, but they are certainly worth the time put into them.