What makes a man a man?
Responsibility, values and balls, argues ‘US Guys’ author Charlie LeDuff
By Joe Piasecki 06/18/2009
The American man is in distress, reporter Charlie LeDuff finds in his book, “US Guys: The True and Twisted Mind of the American Man.”
An exercise in participatory journalism in search of shared flaws and ideals, the book’s quick, often brutal prose takes us into the fragile lives of impoverished bullshit dreamers, rodeo heroes and cowards, $250-a-week last-chance athletes playing semi-pro football, daredevil immigrant circus performers one fall from oblivion, members of a club for drinking and fighting, and the down-and-outers at the racetrack.
“You will find no stories of rich people in this book,” writes LeDuff, 43. “This was a search for the angry, forgotten middling America from where I come. … What I found were the same worries and uncertainties, the same preoccupations in the minds of virtually every American man I spoke with — namely, race, sexuality, God, ambition, isolation, misunderstanding, fear.” There are those he calls strong despite their shortcomings, and others who hide their faults in playing victims of circumstance.
LeDuff, who had worked on television projects for Discovery and the BBC and was a national correspondent for The New York Times (where he contributed to a Pulitzer-winning series on race), when he wrote “US Guys” (published in 2006), didn’t claim to find any answers. But he did manage to find more than a few critics, including his own paper’s Sunday Book Review.
“He writes in a feverish spew, a collision of adjectives and anger spat out like bullets,” wrote the Times’ Allison Glock, who took issue with the author’s central role in his own book. “An erection in print,” she called it.
During a telephone interview, LeDuff objected to “making me into this Spike TV fucking hologram.”
Married for 17 years, he left the Times after the birth of his daughter to write for the The Detroit News and live near his extended family. “I grew up here and wanted my baby to be a part of that club. I want her to have those values. I want to chronicle my people and raise my people amongst my people,” he says.
Earlier this year in that poverty-plagued city, LeDuff got a tip about a man frozen for weeks in a block of ice under an open elevator shaft in the basement of an abandoned warehouse. He wrote that guerilla hockey players and others who knew about the body failed to report it, and when LeDuff reported it the authorities reacted slowly. The story and its follow-ups could have been another chapter in his book.
Some reporters and readers criticized his take on that, too, as potentially self-aggrandizing because of his harsh judgments of reluctant witnesses (except for the tipster who reported secondhand knowledge of it) and choice to explore and document the scene before informing police.
LeDuff blows it off. “Little weasel guys,” he calls them.
— Joe Piasecki
PW: If notions of American masculinity are being eroded, is there a prescription to get us back on track?
LeDuff: This might not be a bad thing we’re going through — this economic meltdown, this uncertainty. By default you’re going to have to go back to some of those old principles: taking care of your family, looking after your children, living within your means, relying on your neighbor, taking care of older people. Maybe it’s just what the doctor ordered, because money makes it possible to abdicate your responsibilities, not just as a man but as a person. Ultimately, you have to take care of your responsibilities. Especially your family, and then your neighbors.
But in your book, lack of economic opportunity and the devaluation of manual labor seem to play a role in a general sense of hopelessness among working-class men.
There’s a downward spiral of the worth of manual labor, but intellectual labor, white collar labor, that’s going too. It’s all predicated on manual labor. Look, if we were all newspaper reporters and writers we’d starve on words. You and I are living off the fat of these guys. If these guys aren’t fat, what does that say?
Bankers are getting laid off, lawyers are getting laid off, newspaper men are getting laid off. [Upper- and lower-class] men have fear in common. And they have bellies in common. And they have children in common. And they have their balls in common. There’s this prescriptive notion of what you’re supposed to be: You’re supposed to be the dude. You’re supposed to be the guy feeding people. You’re supposed to be the rock. We’re all frightened, because what glues this polyglot society together? Dough. Money. Opportunity. A guy can make it on his wiles, his labor. Not really. Not now.
The book was from a few years ago, at the height of the money and the housing bubble. If you actually went beyond the faux-marble door you realized it’s just painted wood. They said we were rich, but it didn’t feel like we were rich, spiritually or otherwise …
You ever caught a fish?
A lot of guys are embarrassed that they haven’t. It’s very basic. Finding food. A dreamy concept a few years ago, but now it’s to the fore.
Well, if nothing else, your book shows that you know how to
take a beating.
When it’s your turn to fight in Oakland, you seem you want to prove an individual guy can stand up for himself and make it on his own, and afterward this woman comes up and says she admires you, but you decide it’s all just theater. But then you seem to find meaning in the violence of your childhood [in the book, LeDuff describes how his stepbrother would force him and his brother into living room brawls]. I’m a little confused.
I suppose I’m confused. But one thing is I did it. I know for fucking sure. It was hypnotic, because in the end they’re hugging me. I had proved a point. This guy’s not going to fuck with me. Not for real. Which is a great feeling. Having said that, the woman — and maybe I’m projecting onto her, quite possible — she saw it too. I’m just reminding her it was only theater. That wasn’t really an alley. But I did call my brother, because that bullshit we tell each other, that macho masculine bullshit, it’s true. We helped each other develop into decent men. He said, “Did you win?” I said, “Nah.”
So the point was you did it?
That means I did win. But it was just theater.
In terms of these ideas about what a man’s supposed to be like, who are the most complete men you’ve encountered?
Most of my friends are incomplete men, and there’s nothing wrong with that. The point is, if you stop trying I got no use for you. If you’re a coward, I got no time for you. If you’re a punk to your children, I’ve got no time for you. That’s why when you loan money to your brother it’s very important. Dude, you got to pay it back. It’s not the money. It’s: Can we trust each other? Can we depend on each other? Will you see me through until I’m in that hole in the ground?
Or frozen in ice at the bottom of an elevator shaft?
The reason we take care of the dead is it’s a promise to the living that I will see you through. His name is Johnnie Redding. Write that down. We got him buried. I got attacked for that story by the local press and shit, these little weasel guys. The people skating around him on the ice. It was my brother who called me — that’s who the caller was. All my mom said was ‘I’m proud of mine, then,’ and that means everything.