Early on in his collection of essays, Kent Russell recounts a few anecdotes from a biography of frontiersman Daniel Boone, focusing on the deaths of two of Boone’s sons. After depositing the second son’s body in a mass grave following the Battle Of Blue Licks, Boone is purported to have offered the less-than-flattering eulogy, “I did not hear your name when they were beating up for volunteers… I am sorry to think I have raised a timid son.”
To lead with Boone works for Russell’s collection, which pulls its title from the latter portion of that quote, on two levels: on one level, as a not-so-subtle analogy of Russell’s relationship with his own father, which is the predominant subject of the time-stamped essays that break up (and hope to tie together) Russell’s prior acts of immersion journalism. In those essays—previously published by the likes of n+1, The New Republic, and Tin House—he tackles everything from the Gathering Of The Juggalos to hockey enforcer John Brophy to self-immunizer Tim Friede.
At the same time, in Russell’s own way—much like Boone, whose tales, as Russell acknowledges, have been subject to many variations, often of questionable veracity—he is branching out to explore things, becoming the non-military trailblazer of his household while also remaining not quite part of the society he writes about.
I’m Sorry To Think I Have Raised A Timid Son offers readers plenty to ponder, both in the tales of the characters Russell covers and in the family dynamics he portrays. But there is a question of whether it all works together. While it is admirable that Russell strives to give readers something more than a simple collection of regurgitated essays from the web, the connections feel forced, not altogether cohesive, and strained.
Tonally, there are some key differences, in that, immersed as he might be in the subjects of the proper essays, Russell stops short of being truly participatory, instead opting to observe closely and simply acknowledge his presence. But when it comes to family, he delves deeper into the territory of gonzo, going so far as to instigate conflicts with his father, arguably betraying Dad by making him exactly what he does not want to be: the subject of one of Russell’s pieces. Stylistically, the previously published essays also read tighter, as though they may have been reined in more during their earlier editing processes.
Russell ultimately fails to make his father the villain he seemingly tries to portray; Dad’s desire to avoid becoming material for Russell’s essays is understandable and founded, his concerns about his son’s profession reasonable. But maybe that was never really the point. Maybe, in this analogy, there is Boone to be found not only in the old-school machismo, but also in the sense that Russell was just never destined to feel at ease at home; he was to head west to discover new things, and in a greater sense be part of a paradigm shift that he himself is trying to understand through his work.
I Am Sorry To Think I Have Raised A Timid Son will no doubt be divisive. The style—littered with what Dad calls Russell’s “fancy vocabulary”—gets easier to digest along the way, but will likely be a turnoff to some. If nothing else, Russell is a consistently funny writer whose essays can be appreciated simply on the merit of their observations. But like the tales of Boone, whether or not they add up to anything more than that depends, in large part, on how much credence the reader is willing to give to the stories and the man behind them.