Review Of Charlie LeDuff’s US Guys: The True And Twisted Mind Of The American Man
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 11/3/07


  If there is one thing more depressing than bad writers, it is bad critics, who are clueless as to what constitutes bad writing. As example, how many blurbs for books have you read that basically state: ‘’I knew exactly where this story was going from page 7, and loved every banal minute of the book!- BIG NAME AUTHOR/WHORE’? Then there are the bad quotations of the bad writing, seemingly given as proof that the bad writing is really good writing. In looking over the reviews of journalist Charlie LeDuff’s 2006 book (both professional and the Amazon sort), US Guys: The True And Twisted Mind Of The American Man, several of the same shorthand and cribbed metaphors and comparisons cropped up. This is another bane of bad criticism, as well the smoking gun that most of these phonies never even really read the book; they simply skimmed, took notes, and regurged what they read of what others thought of the book. 

  The two biggest memes to be repeated ad nauseam, in these sorts of ‘reviews,’ were debates over whether the ‘US’ in ‘US Guys’ meant ‘United States,’ as in the book’s being merely a critique of American males and masculinity, or ‘Us Guys,’ meaning LeDuff lumped himself in with other males- American or not. Seriously, go a-Googling, and you will see this debate. Of course, the title is an entendre, which means it can and does mean both, but the very fact that such a seemingly manifest thing was being debated calls into question the very intellect of the debaters, who were often published book reviewers. The second meme that was tossed about, with glaring unoriginality, was the comparison of LeDuff to the Godfather of Gonzo journalism (i.e.- self-centered non-fiction ostensibly about a thing, but really about the journalist’s ego), Hunter S. Thompson. Again, the comparison is spurious, for, unlike Thompson, LeDuff actually has wordsmithing talent to back up his ego- therefore he’s much closer to Studs Terkel than Thompson. There is also an intellectual probing and depth absent in Thompson’s writing, yet this quality undergirds the quality of LeDuff’s prose, and, like all good writing, it forces a rereading to get the totality of what is being conveyed. On a technical and stylistic level, LeDuff’s closest antecedent is not any journalist, but the staccato fictive prose of the perpetually underrated crime novelist Mickey Spillane. As for substance? This examination- really a portrayal, for it does not really question, the tales merely show, and let the reader decide- is far more diverse and far less cliché-ridden than the out of touch and elitist Robert Bly’s similarly themed, but laughable, opus, Iron John. Yet, it is no mere travelogue, as some other reviewers have called it.

  It is divided into eleven sections, each named after the city and state where the tale occurs. It has an assortment of scenarios to ensnare the lowest common denominator mind, yet always rises above the expected. For example, LeDuff writes of Oakland bikers and a fight club where he gets his ass kicked, yet proves his cojones. He does a George Plimpton with a minor league Arena Football League team, the Amarillo Dusters. He tails Detroit homicide detectives on the trail of a possible serial killer. He struts down a catwalk with sexually ambiguous Manhattan fashionistas. He talks politics with developmentally arrested Little Big Horn enthusiasts. He pals around with wannabe gay rodeo stars. He frolics nude with the wackos at the infamous Burning Man Festival. Yet, there is always a sense of the genuine, even though many of the episodes were actually parts of episodes for a television series LeDuff was involved with, the Discovery Channel’s Only In America. LeDuff does not approach these specimens of American masculinity as if gawking in through zoo bars, but eyeballing someone across a couch or a bar stool. There is no navel-gazing introspection either. The book is loaded with moments that are pure time capsule moments- those minor and major things that define a culture at any given point; and these moments are often missed in reviews of the book which claim LeDuff uses the weirdos he encounters to somehow psychoanalyze himself, or that LeDuff- a quintessential East Coast Liberal, is engaging in the very sort of stereotyping he would deride in others’ writing. None too ironically, it is the reviewers who are doing the stereotyping they accuse LeDuff of. Of course, had such critics actually read the book, such claims would not be made, for LeDuff is so specific in the groups and individuals whose lives he limns that to claim stereotyping is ridiculous, and shows the claimants need to also wield their dictionaries a little better, for the word ‘stereotype’ does have a specific meaning. Nor does LeDuff ever sermonize- another charge against him. His critics seem to lack any and all facility to differentiate between having a strong opinion, and couching that in terms of a dialogue within a piece, and moralizing from on high, with the tone and pose of omniscience.

  Also, LeDuff participates in his tales- he’s not just the detached observer. Yes, to an extent, he does strike the tough guy journalist pose, but he also Swiss Cheeses that pose with well-interpolated vignettes from his own past. Are all of them necessarily true? I don’t know, and I don’t care, for the very act of participation vitiates the notion that the book is just journalism. It has already strayed into the gray minefield of memoir. LeDuff has been burnt before for charges of plagiarism, and allegedly misquoting subjects, but even if true, this has nothing to do with the quality of his prose, something I will convincingly demonstrate. Yes, LeDuff does focus mainly on the working class and issues of race, sexuality, isolation, and loneliness. In fact, there has likely not been a better book on loneliness published in America in the last quarter century or more. Yet, in looking at the reviews of the book one senses more than a little bit of anger over his semi-hagiography of folk most other writers- fictionists or reporters- deem unworthy of existence, much less mention. Of course, LeDuff’s great prose seems to make even the most benign loser seem a font of irreducible experience, if not wisdom. Yet, I ask, is that not exactly what art is supposed to do? Art is not journalism, which is mere reportage. LeDuff, as I stated, is more than a journalist, more than a former reporter for the New York Times. He’s an artist.
  Now, here is a classic case of a critic grossly misinterpreting LeDuff’s words- a bit of a debate that I mentioned earlier. In
an article posted on Nerve.com, in a ‘debate’ between a tough-guy novelist and his feminist friend,’ the feminist, one Erin Tigchelaar (one of those critics confused by the book’s title), actually writes:


  Like you, LeDuff claims not to understand women, yet he reacts hotly when he's photographed for the newspaper at a gay rodeo in drag: "I'm straight as an arrow. Nobody bothered to ask. If the editors needed any proof of my sexual orientation, they could have easily sent me their unhappy wives and girlfriends and I would return them home with a smile." It's such a classic demonstration of compensating for sexual insecurity, I can't be sure he didn't fabricate it to make a point.


  Of course, in the actual piece, LeDuff is not ‘reacting hotly’ regarding the photo of him in a newspaper identifying him as gay. Instead, he’s actually amused by it, and winking and nodding to the reader of the error, and making fun of those who would actually give ‘a classic demonstration of compensating for sexual insecurity.’ Tigchelaar simply cannot discern between mockery and indulgence. This is what passes for intellectualism, online and off, in public.

  But, enough on what the ignorant think or write. Let me hone in on some of the pieces of excellent writing that makes US Guys such a good- nay, great, book. From his piece, Amarillo, Texas:  


  Amarillo is one long sleeping pill of neon slapped up on the banks of the new river called the interstate. I-40 cuts straight through town like the lines on a palm. Everything seems lost here. Everything is the same here, as it is the same in Indiana or Florida or Oregon. Burger King. Sunoco. Starbuck’s. Strip mall architectural shit, man. The cultural, regional distinctions are getting siphoned down the drainpipe. Cajun, Crow, Creole, it’s disappearing. There’s something malignant and unknown about the dirty windows and cheap curtains here, they conceal something that I never quite uncovered. Beyond the city limits the land stretches out beyond empty.


  Note the excellent similes and metaphors, the precision of vision his descriptive eye wields. Sentence one has two great metaphors- the ‘pill’ and ‘river.’ They are connected by a great verb, ‘slapped,’ as well as some primo adjectives. The next sentence also has a great metaphor set up by a great verbal usage. Then we get a great use of self-negating anaphora: ‘Everything seems lost here. Everything is the same here….’ We then get examples of what the anaphora is referencing. Then we get the injection of an unnamed dread, and we end with the almost super-infinitive adverb-adjective combination, ‘beyond empty.’

  But, LeDuff demonstrates, again and again, that his facility with words is not happenstance nor accidental. In Oakland, California, the fight club piece, here is how he opens this great piece:


  Just before I became a teenager, my stepbrother Terry came to live with us. Terry was five years older than me. He was short and stringy, wore his hair shaggy and had an exotic fuzz of a beard.

  When Terry spoke, he mostly spoke with his fists. My stepbrother was angry. We were all angry, but Terry was really angry. I was scared of him. He was my big brother, after all. For instance, we once got paid to scrape and paint a garage. In the end, I scraped and painted the garage and Terry got paid. When Terry’s tomato rolled off the roof when we stopped for lunch, he snatched me by the hair and pitched me over the eaves trough as though the outrage of gravity had been my fault. When I brought his damaged tomato back up the ladder and presented it to him, Terry’s tongue rolled up like a cannoli, his expression of rage, and he pitched me off the roof again. One of life’s little lessons.


  Great language, and a deceptively effective conceit. LeDuff opens the piece with a memory of his youth, then flash-forwards to the present, after letting us know that his brother eventually met doom because of his own stupidity and drug use. This twist on what seems to be the expected trope of the tale is but one of the many literary devices LeDuff employs. But, just look at this little gem: ‘the outrage of gravity.’ While it is easy to elide such a phrase, the fact is that lesser writers simply are incapable of such a twist of phrase, much less recognizing it in other writing. Yet, this is no stumbled upon thing, for such phrases pepper much of the book. Then, look at that last sentence; ‘One of life’s little lessons.’ Not one of life’s ‘hard’ lessons, which would be utterly trite, but ‘little,’ which itself is a bit familiar- but not banal. Yet, it transcends banality for the two very distinguished paragraphs that precede it.

  Moving on in the piece, look at this little comic moment, which obviates the claims that LeDuff’s book is grime and humorless, ones which many critics have made:


  A bouncer at a bar, Dave was once the Marine commando who sat in church behind President Bill Clinton with a shotgun across his lap, a top marksman in the United States military. He was so cloistered during this top-secret assignment at Camp David, he says, that he lusted after the homely Chelsea Clinton as she came of age, her lips thickening, her nipples budding up through her shirt.


  The piece then ends, after LeDuff gets his ass kicked, but remains unbroken, in a fight against a biking behemoth:


  I call my brother. My brother is spellbound by violence too. I tell him about the night, about the fact that I like these men, how I will never wear their patch. I tell him to call my other brothers and remind them of our own fight clubs in the living room so many years ago with the shaggy Crystal-T freaks looking on. Tell my brothers we are our own rats, our own family, a culture unto ourselves, no matter how damaged we are. We are strong despite the weaknesses. I tell him that and I tell him that I love him.


  Now, the whole piece is an essay of well-wrought dickwaving, almost of the sort that the clueless Tigchelaar claims is LeDuff’s forte (although unrecognizing of his skill and deployment of subversive mechanisms), yet look at the last two sentences: ‘We are strong despite the weaknesses. I tell him that and I tell him that I love him.’ These are the sort of ‘Alpha Pansy” (a LeDuffian neologism) terms that a Paul Haggis (screenwriter of the atrocious Oscar-winning film Crash) or the buck-toothed elephantine guru, Tony Robbins, might use. But, in LeDuff’s hands, these terms take on a genuineness because they are a coda to a tale at such antipodes from those they are normally appended to. Thus, they are not clichés, but actual subversions of the cliché. In poetry, this can be achieved by taking a love poem cliché and reusing it inside of a poem about a serial killer or some other disjunctive subject matter. LeDuff does this often enough in the two books of his I’ve read that this is clearly not mere random serendipity, but evidence of practiced writerly excellence.

  Here is LeDuff at his most politically cogent, from Crow Agency, Montana:


  One of the white men, Rod Beattie, an aging former paratrooper and powerhouse mechanic, said something interesting to me through the cloud of gunpowder: The war in Iraq and the war of the plains have similarities. One culture has the technology, the other lives in the Stone Age. And resist as they might, the Arabs are going to be dragged into the modern world, just as the Indian was dragged in. The Muslims can’t win because, like the Indians, they are divided by clan and custom. Sunni, Shiite, Kurd. Shoshone, Sioux, Crow. It’s all the same in that respect.

  ‘There is no way to stop the march of progress,’ he told me after we’d unloaded our blanks and were waiting our invitation to come into the camp and have a doughnut and a Coke. ‘I don’t know if what’s going on in this country you could call progress, but no matter how you look at it, the Muslim is going to be part of it, whether he likes it or not.’

  ‘Well, I don’t like the place we’re headed, you know? Fat, stupid, scared and jerking off to porno,’ I said to him.

  ‘Neither do I,’ the sergeant said, holding his guidon of a split U.S. flag. ‘That’s the way it is, though.’

  ‘You think the Indian got fucked?’

  ‘I think he’s still getting fucked.’


  Note, again, how the rather trite observation that the Red Man is still getting fucked over by White Society is subverted, by coming directly after such an astute observation about, and correlation of, the Indian Wars and the Iraq War. LeDuff then further subverts the seeming banality of the observation that ends this section by going off to a memory of Kurds and Turks- a hairpin turn that works, and sends the piece off into another arc.

  Again, these are strategies that simply do not enter the minds of lesser writers, who barrel straight ahead whilst fully indulging clichés and whatever idea or ideal (artistically, politically, religiously, philosophically, etc) that is in the current air- and certainly not original to them, much less well wrought, even if unoriginal. That LeDuff a) knows these strategies exist, b) knows where and when to employ them, and c) does so with skill and grace, shows that he understands one of the oldest maxims (culled from a sonnet of mine) about art that I have long proffered: ‘Greater than transcendence is its recognition.’ By this I mean that to understand how and why something works greatly is greater than randomly doing something great. Why? Because, like the old Biblical tale of Jesus and the loaves of bread and fish, understanding why something works greatly means it can be replicated. I.e.- it is better to understand how to fish than simply have a fish. LeDuff is one helluva rod and reel man.

  If you’re still not convinced, let me end with another great selection- one that again shows humor, as well as a way with words and an ear for naturalistic conversation. This from Detroit, Michigan:


  ‘There was this time over in the Sixth when an Arab made his wife get down on her knees in the front yard,’ the white detective said. He pronounced it Ay-rab. ‘She was cheating on him. He made her beg for her life before cutting her head off with a machete. He tossed her naked body in a Dumpster.

  She had a great set of tits,’ he said matter-of-factly, almost as an afterthought. The waitress came by and poured him more tea. He paused, wiped his lips and smiled. She walked away. He continued, ‘Those tits were so fantastic that every guy in the precinct stopped by to look at ‘em. You hardly even noticed the brain stem poking out. Her head was stuffed in a sack.’

  ‘Those Ay-rabs don’t take no shit like that, man,’ the black detective added. ‘A cheating wife, I mean. They’re old-school, those Ay-rabs.’

  ‘Very true. Anyhow, she had a great set of tits. You couldn’t help but look at ‘em. Nice big balloons. I’ll never forget those.’

  Tits. You can’t help but stare at them, whether they’re attached to a headless corpse or they appear in your run-of-the-mill crime scene photograph. Tits cause more murder than money. Tits cause passion. Passion leads to sex and sex is death. Nobody knows that more than a good homicide dick.


  I will not even provide exegesis for this selection, for if you need it, stop reading now, because you will never understand the ingredients of great writing. Period.

  This is not to say that all is great in the book. The weakest piece is the Black Rock City, Nevada piece, the one on the Burning Man Festival. Sometimes it rambles on pointlessly, although there are some good moments. Yet, even that can be defended on the grounds that it’s merely recapitulating the utter anomy of the festivities.

  Then, there are the countless great quips- some Bartlett’s-ready, others just fun. When speaking of Oklahoma, he writes, ‘The landscape is so flat and barren you could probably watch your dog run away all day long.’ When eating at a racetrack in Florida, he writes, ‘The joint reeks of arthritis rub and thin coffee.’ And when dealing with a possibly inbred hillbilly preacher he writes, ‘McCormick’s people are a landless class with weak jaws and hard eyes and sloped postures that make them look as though they were set out to drip-dry on a hook.’

  At heart, LeDuff is the latest in a long line of American writers- be they poets- Hart Crane, fiction writers- John Steinbeck, or journalists- Studs Terkel, who can rightly be termed Whitmanians- members of the Good Gray Club. Like all good writing, his will force you to reread a paragraph or page, not just skim through them, as so many bad critics do. There will be twists of phrases that knot like a piece of Velcro on your favorite sweater. Listen to the tear, as you peel it off, and you will understand a little something about what LeDuff means when he writes, at the end of Crow Agency, Montana, of the Little Big Horn nuts: ‘the triumph of the conquerors makes them the carriers of their subjects’ disease.’ A pretty good definition for how great art is supposed to work, eh? My advice? Let insight infect. Charlie LeDuff’s US Guys: The True And Twisted Mind Of The American Man is a plague.

[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Van Der Galien Gazette website.]


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