In the spirit of Tom Wolfe, Hunter S. Thompson, and for one chapter in particular, George Plimpton's Paper Lion, Charlie LeDuff's US Guys: The True And Twisted Mind Of The American Man revives the contradictory practice of "participatory journalism," in which the writer becomes the story nearly as much as he reports it. Through a series of crazy, often dangerous stunts across the country—many of them documented for the 10-episode Discovery Channel series Only In America—LeDuff set out to find "the true and twisted mind of the American man," if such a thing is even possible. Given his methods, it should come as no surprise that Charlie LeDuff really discovers Charlie LeDuff, and that any generalizations he makes about the thwarted dreams and frustrating inadequacies of American manhood are a mix of macho posturing and self-projection. But while its various postulations are bunk, US Guys' individual chapters are undeniably entertaining, provided they're consumed in bite-sized chunks.
Starting with a seedy motor lodge along Route 66 in Tulsa, where an elderly man claims to know where notorious outlaw "Pretty Boy" Floyd hid his loot, LeDuff crisscrosses to various destinations, drawn to the American man at his most flamboyant. The bulk of his adventures involve some form of physical punishment: He spends a few terrifying seconds on a bull while covering a gay rodeo in Oklahoma City, earns a spot on a second-tier arena football team in Amarillo, takes on the burliest brawler in a real-life fight club in an Oakland biker bar, and takes part in a Little Big Horn reenactment in Crow Agency, Montana. On the few occasions when he takes a step back and merely observes, he's still attracted to larger-than-life characters, from the yahoos who flock to the annual Burning Man festival to the Bible-thumping literalists who still practice snake-handling in Appalachia.
Given that the book speculates about what it means to be a man in contemporary America, it's curious that US Guys seeks out only the most extreme, marginalized subjects, rather than the average family man scraping out a living wage. Seeing how LeDuff's punchy, staccato prose style tends to spin everything into a tall tale, there's no doubt that he could have made even a beer-swilling Poughkeepsie schlub sound like a colorful iconoclast. LeDuff's wide-ranging thesis about manhood never really coheres, mainly because the individual stories are too colorful to represent the mean, but as chapter-length anecdotes, they're too juicy to resist.