Friday, February 16, 2007

A punishing road to wisdom: Review of US Guys by Charlie LeDuff

Reporter pursues male psyche through fights, football, Burning Man event

US GUYS: The True and Twisted Mind of the American Man
By Charlie LeDuff.
Penguin Press, 242 pp. $25.95.

Is there something ominous and seething in the soul of the American man? Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times reporter Charlie LeDuff thinks so.

In his new book US Guys LeDuff adopts the mantle of George Plimpton and throws himself into a variety of dangerous situations: He joins a fight club in Oakland; cruises the dirt streets of the neo-hippie Burning Man festival in the nude; worships with snake-handling Christians in Tennessee; participates in a gay rodeo in Oklahoma City; follows around a wisecracking Detroit homicide detective; and joins an arena football team. In the end you come away with the distinct feeling all is not well in Middle America.

LeDuff bucks the stereotype of the media-elite journalist as someone out of touch with the real America. The journalist's job, he writes, is to be "someplace you are not supposed to be, asking questions that no decent person would, things that would make your mother ashamed." His first book, a collection of Times columns titled Work and Other Sins, dealt with the denizens of New York City bars and back alleys. As a consequence, he's an old-school, rough-and-ready reporter, in the mold of Jimmy Breslin.

The media machinery these days favoring images over ink, it quickly subsumed someone so sui generis as LeDuff. This second book was born of LeDuff's experience filming a Discovery cable TV series called Only in America. The show ran for 10 episodes (it's still showing in reruns) and featured nearly all the stories in US Guys.

But anyone who watches the series will find stark differences in the presentation. While the series is marred by a breezy "gee whiz, look at all the freaky things I'm doing" tone, US Guys is more provocative, cerebral and, frankly, self-loathing. LeDuff is really using America as a mirror in which to measure himself.

And he's not satisfied with what he sees. When he joins a traveling circus of immigrant performers from Russia, Venezuela and Mexico, he's trained to be a clown. "I am, of course, already a clown," LeDuff writes. "A stupid man who hides behind his outrageousness. A scared, stupid little man who would rather people laugh at what he does than at who he is."

Elsewhere, he is preoccupied with provoking others to beat him up. At the "Nouveau Nihilist" Burning Man festival in Nevada, LeDuff tries to provoke the drug-fueled crowd of 40,000 nude, sunburned hipsters by throwing eggs at their giant neon-lit Burning Man effigy, which he sneers at as an "ephemeral piece of 'highly conceptual art' " worshipped "as though it equaled the Acropolis."

In the most memorable episode in the book LeDuff pals around with fight-club members, a gang dubbed the Rats. The club consists of 30 members and eight prospects, ages 21 to 38, and includes "not your run-of-the-mill misanthropes and boneheads. But former Marines, sharpshooters, mechanics, car salesmen, doctors of philosophy, missionaries, bureaucrats, government agents, fine painters, cardsharps," all "physically fit, wild and on the edge of insanity." LeDuff calls them "the most complete-incomplete men there are."

Their parties involve a punk band, bottles of whiskey and a boxing ring in which they beat each other black and blue, much as in the Chuck Palahniuk novel Fight Club (later turned into a film starring Brad Pitt).

To prove his mettle, LeDuff challenges Big Mike, a 330-pound dreadlocked 29-year-old psychology student at UC Berkeley. Big Mike is the only African-American member of the Rats, a man LeDuff views as the embodiment of the "black bogeyman."

The 30-something LeDuff is a slender 160 pounds, smokes, has soft hands and is fond of wearing a foppish black suede vest. (Later in the book he will go to New York and try and fail to become a model.) Before the bout, onlookers mock him as "Oscar Wilde the faggot." One sullen Rats member says, "I hope he kills you."

But by the very act of sacrificing himself in the ring, taking his punches and having the guts to ignore his fear, LeDuff wins over the mob, which cheers for him even as he's getting bloodied: "The little man! The primordial. This is the meaning of fight club and riding on the edge and fire and explosions. The exhilaration of life," LeDuff exclaims.

Less punishing is his stint as a member of the Amarillo Dusters Arena 2 football team. The players, who earn a paltry $200 per game, are motivated by dreams of making the big time. Most will fail. Surely this is a metaphor for broken dreams, but in Amarillo he also finds the racial divide between the black players and white players telling. While the white players have the advantage of their skin color when re-entering the job market, the black players, though admittedly "physically superior," have far dimmer prospects.

So why does LeDuff risk so much in the service of his journalism? As he tells a snake-handling Christian: "Well, I don't like the place we're headed, you know? Fat, stupid, scared and [masturbating] to porno."

Taken as a whole, it's hard not to feel that American men have lost their central place in the culture and as a consequence have demeaned themselves. LeDuff sees the possibility of redemption, and self-transformation in fomenting the American man's anger. The danger, of course, is that this energy, so often manifesting itself in violence, will consume itself and leave behind nothing but ashes and a hollow shell of humanity.

Reading US Guys is like taking a brisk slap in the face from someone who's demanding you slap him back. It's not pleasant, but it will give you a sense of how you measure up. And it does leave a sting.