Apparently contemporary fiction is suffering from an infusion of effeminate, lazy, timid and predictable male writers. Or at least that’s the impression I get from the Canadian-based publisher Raincoast and the sprinkling of various reviewers who are championing former Nassau Weekly editor Nathan Sellyn ’04’s literary debut Indigenous Beasts as a “daring collection of fiction” from “a bold, young writer whose work is masculine, energetic, and shocking.” For the record, I have no idea what a “masculine” piece of fiction could be, beyond containing a bunch of tough-guy male characters (but, then again, so does a lot of gay erotica). I figure it has something to do with hand-to-hand combat, drinking, and banging/beating “bitches” up, in which case, I could point to a few male writers who have gotten by on such themes: Thomas McGuane, Dennis Lehane, Cormac McCarthy, Richard Ford, and, okay, maybe Nathan Sellyn.
But is chauvinism all it takes to be a “masculine writer?”
Indigenous Beasts is comprised of fourteen short stories about troubled men who, at some point or another, all seem like they’ve just hopped out of an issue of Esquire. There are your high-rolling dope fiends, your blue-collar roughnecks, your addled, big-hearted twenty-somethings without any sort of job or direction. A sexually-confused teenager makes an appearance, as well as a black cowboy actor. A fairly mixed crowed, yes, but more often than not they’re all battling the same things: strange fathers, fickle wives, and/or idiot girlfriends. Turn on one of those damned movie marathons SpikeTV is always running during the holidays, and you’ve got the majority of themes in this book covered. So I hope that this is not what the literary world means when they say “masculine fiction?” Bigwig short story artisans such as Alice Munro or Lorrie Moore are doing the same thing, only in gender inverse, and with much more skill, but no one’s walking around calling their stuff “feminine fiction.”
In my opinion, if Sellyn truly has a kind of testosterone-driven panache with anything, it’s violence. And violence would be a fairly common literary trait among the masculine, in that I’ve never met a girl who liked Blood Meridian (well, except, maybe Joyce Carol Oates). But I’m not just talking about Steven Seagal-type violence, which is, in some way, manly, I guess, but I mean real violence, violence that will simultaneously shatter your heart and make you want to throw up in your mouth a little bit—though not in the snarky, gag-me-with-a-spoon way. This is the type of violence that Sellyn is exceptional at, and I guess this is what supposedly makes him “masculine.” There are many stories scattered through this book that contain some of the most hair-raising, gut-wrenching writing I’ve read in a while. One particularly memorable moment entails an unfair game involving messed up teenagers shooting small children with BBs. In another story, we have a high school kid being pummeled and then pissed on by a group of boys in the bathroom. In yet another, a man is smashing a dying sheep’s head against a rock. Unfortunately though, these are only scenes.
Of the fourteen stories which appear in this collection, twelve were taken from Sellyn’s thesis—which was completed here, at Princeton, for our very own creative writing department—and, frankly, you can tell. Of course, each of these stories has been beefed up in some way or another for the better, but in the end there is still the hint of a certain young “workshoppy-ness” about many of them (“Cleaning Up”, “Going Through Customs”), and a couple of the stories feel like well-executed exercises for class. (Joyce Carol Oates was his advisor, if you were wondering.)
Perhaps the problem with many of the stories in this collection is that they just feel too underdeveloped, or perhaps the term is “collegiate.” Many of the endings seem rushed to completion. A lot of the stories don’t feel like they truly picked up until a few pages in, as if the author didn’t quite know what he was going to write about when he started. In terms of voice and tone, these stories ranged widely. And it is probably no coincidence that the two gems in this collection, “The Helmet,” a Junot Diaz-inspired narrative about two boys torturing the town retard, and “The Basics of the Species,” a supremely intelligent half-satire about reality TV and terrorism, were written during his post-undergraduate years. Both of these stories are written with a sort of alarming grace, maturity, and poise that the other stories seem to lack. The style you can see beginning to crystallize is both dirty and clear, spare but intelligent. At the same time, however, these stories also only feel like the work of a young player getting used to the game. Or maybe I’m just jaded from reading about all these fresh-faced ragamuffins who keep coming out of (or going into, as the case may be) Ivy League institutions with book deals. Or maybe I’m just not masculine enough.
Basically, for all the bruises and bloody carcasses that populate this impressive yet ragtag bunch of short stories, Indigenous Beast speaks of an author who has the potential for an extremely interesting future ahead of him, although he may need a few more minutes in the craft-honing oven before anything singularly awesome comes out. But that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t keep an eye on him! I know I will, and that’s probably because I’m lazy, and predictable, and enjoy baking. But if you call me effeminate, I’ll smash your head into a rock.