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14 March 2016

The new books exploring masculinity and family life

I Am Sorry to Think I Have Raised a Timid Son and The Seven Good Years may two more books by middle-class, middle-aged men, but the journeys they undertake are profound.

By Ian Sansom

If these were books by Brits, we would probably call them “blokeish”. But they are not and there isn’t a word that quite fits. ­Etgar Keret is an Israeli short story writer who excels in tales of the unexpected and the absurd, a kind of Roald Dahl of Tel Aviv. Kent Russell is one of those über-slacker American essayists who writes about US culture with all the self-flagellating world-weariness of a saint and the sneery, two-fingered vigour of a sinner. In The Seven Good Years and I Am Sorry to Think I Have Raised a Timid Son, both men write about the plight of being a man.

If the prospect of yet more sensitive, middle-class, middle-aged men writing about the terrors and difficulties of being sensitive, middle-class, middle-aged men leaves you trembling with rage, a) you are not alone and b) these are probably not the books for you, although c) they might still be worth reading to see how it’s done when it’s done well.

I should probably declare an interest: I love Etgar Keret. I adore Etgar Keret. Indeed, if my Hebrew were up to scratch, I would happily translate Etgar Keret for the rest of my life, for free, for the benefit of mankind. At his best, he is one of the funniest, most exhilarating and delightfully surprising writers currently working in any language. The Seven Good Years is good but it is not, perhaps, Keret at his best. (For this, read Suddenly, a Knock on the Door and The Nimrod Flipout.)

The book consists of essays and reflections on the birth of his son, the death of his father, everyday life in Tel Aviv, and so on: remarks, caprices, glimpses. There are one or two too many essays about the travails of book tours and being a world-famous author and when yet another piece starts with, “A while ago, I took part in a group reading at an artists’ colony in New Hampshire . . .” one does rather begin to yearn for a wacky short story. Nonetheless, some of Keret’s globetrotting encounters are worth recording and are as bizarre as anything from his fiction. “There was, for instance, a Hungarian guy who met me in a local bar after a literary event in Budapest and insisted on showing me the giant German eagle tattooed on his back,” he writes. “He said that his grandfather killed three hundred Jews in the Holocaust, and he himself hoped to boast some day about a similar number.”

The best essays are about Keret’s family, in particular “My Lamented Sister”, which begins: “Nineteen years ago, in a small wedding hall in Bnei Brak, my older sister died, and she now lives in the most Orthodox neighbourhood in Jerusalem.” This is a ­perfect miniature study in family pain. “She loves it when I tell her that I’m doing well and I’m happy, but since the world I live in is to her one of frivolities, she isn’t really interested in the details. The fact that my sister will never read a single story of mine upsets me, I admit, but the fact that I don’t observe the Sabbath or keep kosher upsets her even more.”

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In I Am Sorry to Think I Have Raised a Timid Son, Kent Russell writes about his family with a similar mixture of despair and affection. He spends much of his time in the book trying to figure out his complex relationship with his accident-prone father, a Vietnam veteran, who he has witnessed “walk through a sliding-glass door”, “unwittingly barehand a copperhead” and “set his commemorative Donkey Kong shirt on fire”. “I was in the vehicle when he got T-boned by a cerulean F-150,” Russell writes. “I was not when he did likewise, loaded, to a cocaine cowboy’s yellow Lamborghini.”

Like Keret’s, these meditations on family life are interspersed with other essays, mostly reprints of Russell’s journalistic assignments – a visit to a convention of Juggalos (fans of the hip-hop/horror duo Insane Clown Posse) and interviews with hermits, snake-handlers and the make-up artist who worked with George A Romero on his zombie films. As Russell’s father puts it, “Who wants to read about your dumb ass trying to get killed on an island? . . . Or trying to get bit by a goddamn mamba? Or beat to death by greasepainted human garbage?”

Actually, we do. The long essay about the Juggalos is a masterclass in gonzo journalism and Russell’s self-revealing insights on everything from 21st-century warfare to horror films are entertaining and informative. “To me, the modern horror film has more to do with first-world existence as it is lived today,” he writes. “In the modern horror film, we no longer come together to defeat an existential threat, gaining know­ledge of and confidence in ourselves along the way. Altruism is not rewarded. Even the most self-sacrificing character will be killed off, often for laughs. One protagonist, if any, makes it out alive by becoming more brutal than the monster.”

Middle-class, middle-aged, messed-up men they may be, but in these books Keret and Russell have embarked upon (what else would you expect?) profound journeys of discovery. This is a common enterprise and not restricted to certain writers – or readers. “More than anything,” Russell writes, “I want to dowse for the wellspring that is feeding the fiasco of our character. I am homesick most for the place I’ve never known.” Look around you. What do you see? General fiasco. Homesickness epidemics.

The Seven Good Years by Etgar Keret is published by Granta Books (192pp, £12.99). 

I Am Sorry To Think I Have Raised A Timid Son by Kent Russell is published by Corsair (304pp, £14.99)

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This article appears in the 09 Mar 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Psycho