What You Need
PO Box 539
Marmora, ON K0K 2M0
2015, 224 pp., $19.95, ISBN: 9781926743547
The shirtless boy had earlier shown me a snakeskin nailed to a board. It was roadkill, he said. The skin was in good shape; clean edges, no tears. The tires had just made the snake flatter, perhaps doing all the flattening work required for skinning and mounting before the boy’s mother’s friend even happened upon it. The boy’s mother had promised to have it turned into a band for the boy’s cowboy hat. Now the boy offered me his BB gun.
I had been left behind by the other wedding guests at the Pioneertown Motel, so I appreciated his company. I was the taxi marshal for the wedding, which was going to take place shortly at Rimrock Ranch, about ten minutes’ drive away. There had been confusion over who was supposed to be in which taxi, and not enough seats for everyone in the final trip, so I volunteered to stay behind and wait for the driver to come back for me. The taxi marshal always stayed at the motel. Vultures circled above; real vultures, real circles. The boy was shooting at real cans on a real fence with his BB gun, which, even if it wasn’t a real firearm, was a real BB gun. Stage left was a garden of cacti and stage right was a covered wagon.
I had never fired a BB gun before. I had played paintball once, maybe ten years ago, and couldn’t get the hang of aiming; the paint pellets rising much higher than I expected each time I pulled the trigger.
Now I stood in the California desert, gun in hand, dressed like a Wild West preacher. My hat, which I had bought because it reminded me of Robert Mitchum in Night of the Hunter, was rounded on top. My boots were pointy. I wore a string tie that featured a pewter saddle on the slide. The dress code for the wedding was “Western formal,” so there was a reason for my costume. I had been excited about this opportunity for months, on top of being excited about my friends getting married.
The boy told me to line up the sight at the front of the gun with the sight at the back of the gun. I rested the stock against my shoulder. The sun was low enough in the sky that our shadows extended like oil slicks. The brim of my hat was gigantic in shadow form. The sights wandered across each other and, as I tightened my forearm, came to rest. I pulled the trigger and the can jumped off the fence and clattered to the hard ground. I handed the gun back and walked away. The taxi driver was back.
I felt as if I had finally won in some way. That feeling of elation continued through the rest of the evening and onto the dance floor.
A few weeks later, when I was reading Peterborough sportswriter Andrew Forbes’s debut fiction collection, What You Need, and thinking about how Forbes approaches masculine archetypes, I thought, of course I felt that way. I had embodied one of the archetypes that boys grow up with: the cowboy, the mysterious stranger, the man with no name. I felt no anxiety about what I should or shouldn’t be. I played the role and felt good for playing the role.
It’s no wonder that even as a 28-year-old man, my bookshelf is full of detective novels, my closet is full of cowboy shirts, my jackets are all olive drab, and a captain’s hat and a life preserver hang from my curtain rod. Like many grown-ass men I know, I have a nostalgic fixation on traditional symbols of masculinity, even if I’m aware of how problematic they are.
What You Need, which prompted my rumination, explores the negative effects of this nostalgia for simple male archetypes with a combination of earnestness and satire. Each story in the book focuses on men who were sold a version of masculinity as teenagers that he describes in an interview with The Puritan’s Tyler Willis as antithetical to “responsible adulthood”: a set of damaging behaviours rooted in privilege and reinforced by a “boys will be boys” amnesty. Forbes’s greatest success is in taking the high tragedy out of traditionally masculine narratives. His best stories elicit a sense of loss—not for unfulfilled archetypes, but for people who could have contributed to society in a more meaningful and responsible way if they had relinquished outmoded definitions of manhood, such as the athlete, the suburban dad, the protector, and the honourable suicide.
Forbes is most at home examining masculinity against the backdrop of an existing set of rules that he and the reader both find familiar. Often these are the rules of high school sports, which almost every North American has either participated in or observed. Because of the reader’s immediate grasp of the context within which Forbes is working, the gaps that he explores between ideal and reality really pop in the sports stories, like a knee joint under a linebacker.
In football/daddy issues tour-de-force “Cycles”—reminiscent of Jim Shepard’s excellent “Trample the Dead, Hurdle the Weak,” though without quite as muscular a title—the adult Jason recounts how in high school, he had hated his meek father Richard “for the vision he represented of the life that [Jason] might inherit.” Richard, “thin and mousy,” owned a magazine and tobacco store and followed the same schedule every week for thirty years, taking “comfort […] in small things.” Jason, like many of Forbes’s narrators, “had somehow come to swallow the idea that [he] would one day eat the world whole” but confronted by the “quietness and sobriety” of his father’s life, he began to suspect that he’d been sold a lie. We don’t find out what exactly Jason’s life is like now, beyond that he has experienced several years of drug and alcohol dependency and that he no longer has success with women, but he does reveal that his life since the halcyon days of the Red Raiders has been “extremely shitty.” Some of his teammates “have gone on to do terrible things as men”; whether Jason belongs to that group is unclear. But, at age seventeen, the thought that all he had to look forward to was a life like his father’s, small and controlled, threatened the narrative that he had bought into, of masculinity as virtual omnipotence.
Teenage Jason’s reaction to the glimmering that he might not get what he felt he deserved out of life was to distance himself from his sports-averse father by switching schools to play football. “There are few legal venues as perfect for the adolescent male to work out his bloodlust,” present Jason says of his decision. In this case, his teenage bloodlust was directed toward his father: every player he hit was a stand-in for Richard. And Richard himself was a stand-in for an idea, an embodiment of the suggestion that the dream wasn’t real. So, pretending they were Richard, Jason hit his teammates and opponents as hard as he could, trying to erase them and Richard and the future he represented.
After each tooth-crunching hit, Jason’s “skin felt like chain mail and [his] blood felt like rocket fuel.” Soon, he was taking steroids to bulk up even more, becoming “a massive beast who would eat your son,” a “deity” who “had licence to kill an opponent, if the situation called for it” with the understanding that if such an event came to pass, he “would not be punished as a result, but celebrated.”
This is the same amnesty, the same deification, that resulted in Steubenville High football players Trent Mays and Ma’lik Richmond raping a 16-year-old girl, bragging about it on social media, and being protected by the school’s staff. And, when the boys received a guilty verdict, having CNN’s Poppy Harlow break the news to America with the words that it was “incredibly difficult […] to watch what happened as these two young men that had such promising futures, star football players, very good students, literally watched as […] their lives fell apart”—without consideration for the life of their victim.
As in the case of Steubenville’s favourite sons, the truth eventually comes out in Jason’s life: his steroid use was discovered and he received no amnesty. Because he tried to fulfill the dream he bought into, that of a god-man becoming bigger and bigger in his pursuit to devour the entire world, Jason was banned from football. Not being able to play in his final year eliminated his chance at a football scholarship to university, a watershed that altered his entire life path. When his father confronted him about the situation, Jason told him to “fuck off.” He saw a spark of his own bestial anger in his father’s eyes and his father raised his fist, but did not hit him, “whether out of fear or pity [Jason] did not then know.” But now he knows it was pity. His father may have participated in other problematic masculine behaviours—he does fit the archetype of the distant father—but he understands the social contract and that being a “muscled man-beast overflowing with confidence and power” doesn’t just “make meaty pulp of other boys,” but has damaging effects that go far beyond the field.
Continued access to football wouldn’t have prevented the terrible things his teammates have done as men, despite what Jason believes now. In fact, football allowed them to participate in their own deification. If they had so wantonly acted out their bloodlust off the playing field, they would have been sanctioned by the school and the penal system. But because they were lauded for their athletic prowess at game time, their self-images were able to grow monstrously. They were able to achieve a version of what they’d been promised.
Whereas the narrator of “Cycles” bought into the dream and suffered the consequences, the narrator of “The Gamechanger” is selling it. In the latter story, the college basketball recruiter, Mr. Eddie, pursues a high school superstar named Robert Grainge. This is another daddy-issues story, but from the point of view of a surrogate daddy. Mr. Eddie uses his empathy and sensitivity to act as a replacement father figure in his role of fantasy salesman, and those qualities make him aware of the unsavory nature of his function.
Even if he doesn’t explicitly include it in his sales pitch, the fantasy Mr. Eddie sells to teenage athletes includes a Steubenville-type license to get whatever you desire. “You have to become part of his emotional landscape,” he says, of his approach to a prospect. “Fill him with good feelings and stories of glory and potential victory so rich with detail they function like memory. […] Get right inside his head, between the thoughts of girls and the lyrics of songs and the early memories of basketball on TV.”
Mr. Eddie himself is stuck in the past, stunted by his attachment to early memories of athlete-heroes. “My father took me to see Oscar Robertson and the old Cincinnati Royals when I was six years old, and that was it.” Now he “float[s] through this world, looking for the next great.” If Mr. Eddie can’t be the next great, can’t be another Oscar Robertson, the best he can do is touch greatness: “It’s basketball. It’s always been basketball. The reason I can stand being away from Pam so often […] The reason, if you really want to drill down, that Pam and I are childless.” Mr. Eddie won’t have children because he’s so childlike in his singular obsession.
He does care for these boys he tries to recruit, but with a mix of celebrity worship and paternal instinct. “Frankly, I love him,” he says of Robert Grainge. “Ro-bare Grainge is my whole life right now […] I’ve really fallen for this one.” And they’re still kids, Mr. Eddie reminds the reader. “Sometimes you have to lie to them, and sometimes you have to stay up all night talking to them, and sometimes you have to bail them out of jail. You have to know that they will need their egos stroked, their chins wiped, their shoes tied.”
Mr. Eddie could have been a good father, or at least, “some cloistered, pink, human part of [him]” could have been. That part of him wants to tell Robert, “Don’t get tough, don’t get tough. Don’t lose that openness. Hold tight to your wonder.” But instead, he lies and ego-strokes as his job requires: “They come to us as good kids, for the most part, and when they leave they’re probably still good people, but they’ve lost something. Or been given something corrupting, perhaps, some uneven regard for what they do. They are told too much they are better than other people.” When Grainge hurts himself in a game, ruining his chances at a college career, Mr. Eddie is “already on his way back upstate [to] other young men in other gyms.” Mr. Eddie is the heart of the book, damaged, participating in evil, but self-aware. If Jason has emotional resonance because he was already lost before the story began, Mr. Eddie has emotional resonance because he knows exactly what he’s doing and why he’s doing it, and he can’t and won’t stop.
Whereas Mr. Eddie is a surrogate father figure, the unnamed narrator of “I Cannot Believe We Are Having this Conversation” is an actual father, another athlete past his prime, who is forcing the world around him to accommodate the suburban fantasy he believes he deserves. But unlike Mr. Eddie, he’s completely unaware of the impact of his actions on others.
Both the narrator in “I Cannot Believe” and his coworker Mike played junior hockey, but as adults, they see each other’s paths as completely different. Mike, stuck in his fantasy of continued athletic stardom, “likes his freedom,” which amounts to an inability to sustain a relationship and a habit of “screwing his way” through the female customers of the car lot he works at with the narrator. Mike thinks the narrator is insane to want the suburban white-picket-fence lifestyle he has: “to have married Irina and the kids and the house and soccer practice, the whole bit.” But the narrator doesn’t truly have the lifestyle he imagines, just as Mike doesn’t truly have freedom.
The narrator claimed his occupation was “hockey player” on his application for a mail-order Russian bride. This lie greatly disappointed Irina when she arrived. “I was still very occupied with the idea of being a hockey player,” is how he defends himself. He didn’t even mutually achieve his suburban fantasy with a partner, but acquired a wife under false pretenses in a way he could easily control—“eight years ago […] he picked [Irina] from the pages of [a] catalogue.” This decision came from the same attitude that led him to put the rule “one thing at a time” on the fridge for his son—not so that he and his wife would “have fewer toys to pick up at the end of the day,” but “because on Monday mornings [he] really did not need to hear about how the cleaning lady had complained to Irina and made her feel terrible for being so lucky for marrying a man with a good job and a big house and having bratty kids with too many toys they never pick up.” He doesn’t want either the cleaning lady or Irina calling attention to any gaps between fantasy and reality. He wants to control every aspect of his experience, but unlike Jason’s father in “Cycles,” whose control is limited to his own routine and hurtful through absence, the narrator’s control extends to the rest of his family unit and is actively hurtful.
Despite the level of power that he exerts, the narrator believes himself put-upon and remains delusional about the dynamics in his family. After the family Sheltie’s barking overwhelms him during an argument with Irina (the breed’s propensity to bark being something “somebody should have told [him] about […] before [he] let Irina go and buy one”), he kicks the dog out of the house, letting it run off. When Irina becomes even more upset, his response is to tell her, “I could still send you back,” which feels “true” even if it’s not, and makes him feel “truly powerful, and like [he] could do anything he wanted.” The narrator denies his privilege—he truly is powerful and abuses that power.
The next morning, driving the family around to look for the dog he let escape, he feels at peace. His family is “united in purpose”—his purpose, which itself is a response to a situation he caused—as he drives their “beautiful and roomy Santa Fe on a Sunday morning.” The fact that the dog is still missing doesn’t seem to affect him, as he controls not only the experience of their mission but the parameters as well: “We would find that damned dog, or we would fail trying,” he says. He mistakes a sense of control over how he presents himself to the world for embodying the positive attributes of that role, such as compassion. He feels “good in the way a man does when he is happy with his decisions,” though his decisions the previous day were the opposite of compassionate. He is not a protector but a destroyer.
In the title story, Forbes further examines and picks apart the role of the protector. However, Richie in “What You Need” isn’t a heartless machine like the narrator in “I Can’t Believe…”. A sympathetic but flawed character, he is more similar to Mr. Eddie. But whereas Mr. Eddie is doing evil and knows exactly how bad his behaviour is, Richie acts morally but is revealed by his narration to have limited self-awareness. He is guilty of casting himself in a dubious protector role.
The dubious protector is closely linked to the archetypes of the cowboy, soldier, and cop, all of which focus on forcefully changing the environment of a perceived victim from “unsafe” to “safe.” It’s laudable to try to keep bad things from happening to good people, but people you want to protect will have their own desires, their own ideas about what they want to avoid and how they want to avoid it.
Richie’s brother, Jamie, is cheating on his wife, Janet, who Richie had hooked up with once when he was 20. In the middle of a trip to purchase renovation supplies, during which Jamie blasts Led Zeppelin to remind his brother of their “devious and grubby” youth, he stops to introduce Richie to his mistress, Brenda. Richie has asked Jamie before if he has an exit plan, and he doesn’t—only a childlike “vague desire not to see anyone hurt.” Richie sees that Brenda “satisfies certain doubts” that Jamie “would otherwise harbour about himself.” Like teenage Jason, Jamie feels he is a deity who deserves everything, and still acts as though some holy amnesty protects him. His only gesture toward morality is that he doesn’t actively want anyone to get hurt, but he doesn’t let that stop him from doing hurtful things.
Richie’s approach to doubts in his own life is, like Jason’s father in “Cycles,” to keep “things small, manageable, in order to maintain the illusion of control.” But just because Richie is more self-aware than Jamie doesn’t mean Forbes depicts him as the white hat to Jamie’s black. Richie reveals he’s been stuck on Janet for at least ten years, ever since their only rendezvous, no matter how much he plays it down early in the story: “She got a bit frisky, and I wasn’t arguing,” Richie says of it, dismissively. Moreover, he’s so obsessed with this one glowing moment from the past and who he felt he was at that time that it’s prevented him from having a functional relationship in the decade since. “I look at other women,” he says, “and date some of them, but to defeat any misapplied pangs of desire, I have only to remember our one night together.” He has summoned the memory so many times it is “smooth like a stone.” But more uncomfortable than the torch he still carries for Janet is the way he casts himself as a protector.
After Jamie and the kids have gone to bed, Richie is left alone with Janet in the kitchen and the story crests with a beautifully creepy observation from Richie: “Maybe there was a time when I’d have moved in and held her now, consoled her from a sadness she doesn’t quite realize she ought to be feeling. But that’s not the way we live now.” On some level, Richie’s aware that it isn’t okay to act that way, but he hasn’t fully internalized why. He knows it’s not his role to forcefully protect, but he is wistful for a time when he thought it was.
His word choice is revealing: he thinks that she still “ought” to be feeling a certain way. He is disgusted by his brother’s “hell of a quagmire” and how Jamie has made him complicit in it. He also has empathy for Brenda, “a decent person who was open to the idea of love and happened to have the rotten luck of finding it with a married man.” But he still has a strong urge to play the overly simplistic role of the protector, a role that doesn’t ascribe any agency to Janet despite how much he claims to love her.
Ultimately, we grieve not just for Janet and Brenda, but also for Richie. Richie acts more morally than most characters in Forbes’s book, but as well as nurturing an obsession with Janet for ten years, he has maintained the past thought patterns that Jamie still enacts. Because Richie doesn’t act on his thoughts, they might have minimal impact on Janet. But his ideal of masculinity remains in his gut like a tapeworm or a fluke.
Likewise, mental distress is often described as “something eating you,” because it has the potential to lead to your own negation. When something is eating you, you don’t talk to anyone about it, according to another masculine ideal—that of the honourable suicide. Whatever the issue is, it’s a tragic and manly burden that must be borne until you can’t suffer any more, and then suicide will be your escape to a better place.
In “Jamboree” [first published in Issue 25: Spring 2014 of The Puritan], Rupert and a group of other drunken men, feeling crushed by their current lives and nostalgic for their youth, literally dig up their past, which takes the form of their friend’s corpse. This isn’t even the first time they’ve tried to exhume Steven after he committed suicide in his early twenties; one of the men has the following text exchange with Steven’s sister:
Me: We r digging steven up
Sarah Wiggins: Again?
Sarah Wiggins: Sure. Send me a pic.
Me: Will do.
Sarah Wiggins: Serious?
Sarah isn’t really this flippant about her brother’s corpse—she’s playing along, at first. Rupert’s role in exhuming Steven is more affecting because he still has feelings for Steven’s sister: “Sarah is […] so devastatingly beautiful to me that the thought of her caves my chest in still,” he says. Like Richie, he hasn’t gotten over a flame from nearly a decade ago. Sarah and Rupert “dated for a year and a half before Steven put an extension cord around his neck” and their “love did not survive that.” After Sarah left him, Rupert asked his friend, “I wish you’d kill me, Frank, because I can’t do it myself.” Frank replied, “I love you, Rupert, but you’re not worth the jail time.”
Rupert never recovered from the twin traumas of his friend’s suicide and girlfriend’s departure. Like Jason in “Cycles,” Rupert doesn’t reveal exactly what is wrong with his life now, beyond a general sense of longing for the past and for completeness in all things: “That’s where you see it,” he says. “There are no ways around it. My grass is never cut. My car leaks oil. All the girls not kissed. All those TV series I never stuck it out to see the end of.”
As the men prepare to open the casket, with the “first birds […] starting to sound,” Rupert is unsure if they’ll see a “rotting hunk of meat or a gold-skinned angel”—reality or fantasy. Rupert notes that at first, they thought they were digging Steven up to bring their “old selves to the surface,” like Richie and Jamie in “What You Need” listening to Led Zeppelin to feel like they’re still teenagers. But now, Rupert and his friends realize they’re investigating a different ideal: “what it looked like when the sadness finally left you.”
Rupert has seen another corpse before, a “freshly killed boy from our high school who’d bolted out onto the road […] and been clipped by a Dodge Ram.” But that moment wasn’t filtered through the years of sadness he has now experienced. The boy “was still obviously a person, because everything was in the right place, eyes, nose, hair, ears. A person, but suddenly without life.” Rupert learned about death, but not about death drive.
Now he’s explicitly considering the reality of death as a solution. Although suicide is by no means uniquely male, in North America men are at least four times more likely to complete a suicide attempt than women. As George E. Murphy writes in Comprehensive Psychiatry, “Men value independence and decisiveness, and they regard acknowledging a need for help as weakness and avoid it.” Rupert and his friends haven’t sought help. Their perceived quality of life is so bad that suicide has become worth considering, and the traditional masculine values of “independence and decisiveness” make self-erasure seem an honourable solution. To them, eight years on, Steven is a “lucky bastard” who’s “escaped.” And, saddest of all, Rupert implies that the rest of them feel weak for not doing what Steven did: “He’d done it [and] the closest the rest of us could come was to dig up his corpse on a drunken August night.”
In What You Need Forbes elicits empathy both for those affected by toxic male behaviour—the cheated-on wives, the sisters of the dead, the lost family dogs—and for the child-men who could never let go of the sense of potential they felt listening to Led Zeppelin in the basement, using their shoulder pads as offensive weapons, or watching Magic Johnson on TV. Nostalgia for simpler conceptions of masculinity can be seductive, but we can also be grateful for the opportunity to behave with respect and understanding. Not to ignore it, try to force the dream into being, or ponder ending everything because we didn’t get exactly what we were promised.
Bradford Cox, frontman of the rock band Deerhunter, said in a recent interview, “When I was young, foggy nostalgia was such a part of my shtick. That pink haze of nostalgia and boyhood. Confusion. And now I just wanna be around adults, really.” I think Andrew Forbes would agree. I certainly do.
I also want to be around adults, really, but during my sojourn in the desert I found hanging out with the BB-gun-toting boy satisfying not only because it allowed me to play a role, but because, as for Mr. Eddie and his basketball, it allowed me proximity to an archetype I couldn’t fulfill myself. I couldn’t unproblematically act like a cowboy, but the boy could, and through interacting with him, I could relieve some of the anxiety of being a man in the twenty-first century—even if I knew that once you get in the saddle, it’s only a short ride out of civilization entirely.
Jeremy Hanson-Finger’s first novel, tentatively titled The Big Freeze, will be published by Invisible Publishing in April 2017. He now owns more cowboy shirts than non-cowboy shirts.