A GOOD BAR, according to Kent Russell, fulfills two criteria.
“Number one is that you can’t actually see my face that well. And the second criterion is that the BSC — the Beer Shot Combo, excuse me — is reasonably priced,” he says, returning to our table with his second $7 BSC of the night at Sharlene’s, a dark, unassuming Park Slope establishment that clearly passes muster.
Though we’re here primarily to talk about his forthcoming book, the cumbersomely titled I Am Sorry to Think I Have Raised a Timid Son, matters of alcohol specials and bar ambience are pertinent, since for Russell, drinking and writing occupy common remedial territory. “Writing is a thing that quiets the brain — compresses time, compresses self-consciousness — in the same way as daddy’s little helpers here,” he says, gesturing to the can of Schaefer’s and glass of Old Overholt before him.
For anyone who’s ever had a couple of BSCs in short succession, or even just a bunch of B’s, it’s easy to see how they accomplish this quieting — or dulling — of the mind. (Over the course of several rounds this evening, the point will be proved.) But for readers of Russell’s debut collection of essays, published by Knopf this week, it’s likely harder to imagine how writing, for him, is anything like a respite from self-awareness. The book, a mix of first-person journalism and memoir, is a plunge into the most vulnerable depths of the author’s psyche, and simultaneously, complementarily, a looking outward into the world’s darkest corners and strangest characters — among them a man who plays with snake venom, a desert island huckster, a pro hockey head-basher, and a pack of Insane Clown Posse diehards.
Disparate though these subjects appear, they were the sorts of characters that Russell found himself drawn to a few years ago while employed as a “factotum-cum-Shabbos goy” at Yeshiva University, fixing copiers in a subbasement during the week, and traveling the country on assignment for magazines like n+1 and The New Republic when he had time off, mostly during summers and the High Holy Days. As unlikely an arrangement as it may seem, it’s fairly indicative of the equally circuitous story of his path to becoming a writer in the first place.
If you’d known Russell as a child in Miami, Florida, you would probably not have picked him out as a future Knopf author. A product of laissez-faire-style parenting, he was, as he writes in Timid Son, “free to do what I wanted. Which meant I did nothing.” A large part of his adolescence and young adulthood, he says, is a barely recallable blur of fistfights, beers, and naps.
“I’m trying to think if I read a book in high school,” he says, taking a moment to consider. “Uh, I don’t think I did.”
Things changed when, as an undergraduate at the University of Florida, he pulled a compendium of creative nonfiction off a library shelf: “Like any annoying white guy in glasses, I read David Foster Wallace and I was like, ‘Oh shit, I didn’t know that was possible.’” Just a few years later, he would graduate from NYU’s Cultural Reporting and Criticism program, and shortly thereafter publish his first essay, “Ryan Went to Afghanistan,” in n+1.
But if Russell didn’t appear destined or even likely to grow up to be a writer, the opposite was true of his big sister, Karen, a Pulitzer Prize finalist for her novel, Swamplandia!, who, two years ago, was awarded a MacArthur Foundation “Genius Grant.” Russell says that as a kid, Karen would “go around in a Magooish state narrowly avoiding danger and reading literally anything she could find, like the Stove Top stuffing box at the dinner table, or the children’s placemat at a restaurant or some shit.”
Many in his place might find persistent questions about a celebrated sibling perturbing, but Russell doesn’t seem to mind. The two of them are close (he shows off their initials, along with his sister Lauren’s, in a Legend of Zelda Triforce-esque tattoo on his arm), and each admires the other’s success. “There’s a record for the most points by two brothers in NHL history, and it belongs to Wayne Gretzky and Brent Gretzky. Wayne Gretzky had an assload of points and Brent Gretzky had four. So I’m perfectly happy being Brent Gretzky,” he says. But an impartial scorekeeper might give him more credit. A Pushcart winner (for his essay “American Juggalo”), Russell recently started teaching a creative nonfiction workshop at Columbia. John Jeremiah Sullivan — whose work inspired him early on — has called him “one of the most excitingly gifted young non-fiction writers to have appeared in recent memory.”
Those curious about the forces in the Russell household that have produced not one but two distinctly American voices need look no further than the family’s patriarch. “Our dad’s a consummate storyteller,” Russell tells me. “He’s always been the voice we’ve heard the most, the person who’d act as a kind of filter for outside events.”
No surprise, then, that Russell’s father looms large in Timid Son, if unwittingly so, serving as the author’s primary case study for white American masculinity in the interstitial chapters that form the book’s narrative spine. In an essay that recounts the events of a trip home in 2013, Russell quotes his father as saying, “Birthdays and writing about your family — these things should only be celebrated when the person involved is a child, or retarded.”
So I ask him what his father thinks about his forthcoming collection.
“I gave the dude the galley,” he answers. “He was just like, ‘I’m not going to read this because it will ruin Christmas.’”
“Has he read it since then?”
“I don’t know,” Russell says. “We don’t talk about it.”
But all the way through the book Russell complicates this portrait, revealing the father-son relationship as one that isn’t merely adversarial. They are, he concludes, made of the same Russell-ian stuff, prone to the same faults and strengths of character, and invariably tied up in each other’s fates.
“For better or worse, I am what I am because of that man,” Russell says. “It’s like a nuclear submarine that’s powered by a cracked reactor: it still gets you there but it’s slowly poisoning you at the same time.”
I’m not, as Ruth Bader Ginsburg might say, “100% sober” when I get up to head for the bathroom after one of our last rounds. In the surest sign yet that he’s a regular here, Russell has recommended I check out a drawing of the Devil Sharpied on the wall of the stall, and when I get there I see why: pig-nosed and hoofed, almost faun-like (it may, in fact, be a faun), holding a pan flute in one hand and a bottle of booze in the other, it’s quite a rendering — half-comic and half-frightening.
“I’m really into the Devil,” Russell says when I sit back down at the table.
He tells me his intended narrative persona is a kind of Miltonesque Satan — “both a repellent person and a really charismatic voice on the page.” The characters who feature prominently in his reportorial work are similarly complex. Russell says he’s drawn to these guys because he relates, in some ways at least, to their inability to communicate. They’re antiheroes, almost to a man: guys who both fascinate and intimidate; guys who are driven by weird obsessions; guys who embody a set of principles Russell describes as “a kind of spiritual fist-making.”
For himself, he says, he’s driven to write, because, one day, maybe, he’d like to fully unclench that spiritual fist.
The galleys for Russell’s book arrived in the fall, but since then, and after the initial, short-lived joy of seeing his name on the cover, he admits he felt “baseline bad.” He’s convinced, for instance, that the book will sell only “800 copies, if that.”
Does he really believe that?
“I’m ready for the worst,” he insists. “The absolute worst.”
While the jury’s out, he’s drafting a new magazine story and planning several others. Unlike the drinks, the writing doesn’t cost him anything, and when the going’s good, it provides the same kind of relief. “It affords me those moments, those rare but glorious moments, where I can be like, ‘Shut up, brain! Shut up! Look at this! Fuck you, brain!’”