While reading Kent Russell’s debut nonfiction collection, I Am Sorry to Think I Have Raised a Timid Son, I tried to pinpoint the right carnival ride metaphor to illustrate Russell’s manic momentum, the strong-armed weirdness of his prose, his confidence in a voice that is at once conversational and carefully sculpted. I eventually remembered the spin art machines at town fairs: one psychedelic, paint-drenched piece of paper for five dollars. As a kid squeezing ketchup bottles filled with paint onto whirling paper, I always expected a carnival-blur, some sort of liver-hued tie-dye failure. But when the wheels stopped spinning, the result was always vibrant. Russell’s essays have the same sort of brash unpredictability, the same wild coherence as a fine, steady line of color at the mercy of a centrifugal force.
For example: think you’re about to read a tough but tender-hearted essay about Russell’s father? Read on, and that scene with Russell’s father morphs into a biography of hockey player Theo Fleury, and then a brief history of the erroneous naming of the Napoleon complex. Russell’s nightmarish visit to the Juggalo Gathering includes a bizarre interlude about the hurricane that briefly upended his childhood; it is only as the essay progresses that its far-reaching themes of class, violence, and misfits begin to coalesce. As the reader finds her footing, Russell can seem like the painter who wants to cover every inch of the canvas, a madman who draws from seemingly disparate sources—fragments of conversation, in-depth descriptions of the history of Insane Clown Posse, scraps of memory and linguistic outbursts. But Russell knows exactly where he’s going, and his humor and generosity quickly earn the reader’s trust.
Throughout the collection, Russell’s father serves as an engaged arbiter of Russell’s various projects. “I know it’s your job to be a nibshit,” Russell quotes, “but you have this habit of identifying me in stories and then misreporting the truth.” Russell’s father is sometimes foregrounded—as in the opening essay, “Ryan Went to Afghanistan,” which chronicles both Russell and his father’s relationship with Russell’s childhood friend. The collection does not entirely orbit Russell’s relationship with his father, but each essay is in some way imbued with the senior Russell’s presence, and with reflections on masculinity and power that we come to associate with the Russell family’s no-bullshit, straight-talking pater familias.
One of the strangest and strongest essays in the collection is “Mithradates of Fond du Lac,” in which Russell follows semi-employed factory worker Tim Friede as Friede repeatedly exposes himself to the venom of poisonous snakes. Friede is notorious for his extreme experiments in self-immunization—a quick web search shows him proudly displaying swollen extremities, his arms gashed and lurid. By turns compassionate and detached, Russell inserts himself into his reporting, buying frozen pizza and cases of beer for Friede and his friends, driving to Friede’s “farmland shanty” in order to “test his mettle, to goad him into an unprecedented ordeal: five venomous snakebites in forty eight hours.” When Russell encounters him, Friede’s wife has left him and he’s been dismissed by most of the scientists he contacts, but Russell treats Friede as a comrade. Russell illuminates the dignity of Friede’s overarching goal of using his own body to prove that humans can become resistant to ostensibly lethal venom. But Russell can also be callous to Friede’s physical suffering as he recovers from the painful bites; the essay ends as Russell watches Friede “huddled over a portable electric heater, only one light on […] he’d been lying in a bed since I left.” Russell, unimpressed, comments, “I had no doubt that Tim would take fifth bite if I coaxed him. But there’d be time enough for that.” Instead, he leaves Friede in his shack, abruptly fleeing the scene.
While he actively ingratiates himself with his subjects, Russell remains aware of a fragile privilege that separates him from the juggalos or the desperate self-immunizers. He barrels confidently into uncomfortable situations, finds his footing, and then retreats. But he can’t retreat from his family. When he writes of family, Russell is at his most vulnerable and his most loyal: “This, our family life—even at the thinnest, earliest moments of my stretched memory, it felt like being on a ship’s crew. Being a team of persons, each with a defined role and a murky backstory, sailing together through negative space.”
Russell is a fierce advocate for his family, even as his reporting irks his father. But, he reasons, “It’s not all betrayal. I am doing this for reasons beyond the personal, I think. I have to unearth + drag into the light the hissing, congenital demons that are bleeding me dry. Yes. I have to stake them right in the heart. I have to, because I won’t allow them to sink their teeth into one more Russell.”
Russell’s collection is elusive this way, as he’s deeply attuned to his subjects’ vulnerabilities even as he lauds their feats of strength. He throws himself at their mercy, he fights for them, he admires their power, he jabs at their soft spots, he flees, he circles back. Russell’s compassion for his subjects is not blind, and he doesn’t tread lightly, but he sees them as part of his crew, and he protects them with a ferocity and camaraderie that would make anyone want Russell in their corner.