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Violent Adventure: Contemporary Fiction by American Men
Marilyn C. Wesley
Charlottesville and London: University of Virginia Press, 2003.
$18.50, 212 pages, ISBN 0-813-92213-5

Chris Bell
University of Illinois at Chicago



In the preface to Violent Adventure, Wesley writes:

I bore two sons into a world where Hans Solo replaced John Wayne as a national hero and the lost war in Vietnam was mediated by GI Joe dolls and Rambo movies. I packed their Spiderman lunch boxes with peanut butter sandwiches and turned them over to Julius Caesar and Huckleberry Finn hoping for the best, but every time I watched them climb aboard the school bus I worried [ix].

Immediately, the reader cannot help discerning the whiteness of these examples, the dearth of references that might specifically speak to or about non-white individuals. This limited focus is an inherent problem throughout Violent Adventure, giving the reader the one-sided idea that there is an essentialist, uniquely American brand of violence that every single American man is familiar with and has the potential to practice. Wesley doesn’t seem to know that a convincing text about representations of violence in American fiction should address different instantiations of violence in that fiction. Instead, she makes the grievous mistake of presuming that all forms of violence are the same. Consider, for instance, her structuralist use of the phrase “American manhood” |44]. She deploys this phrase in a casual manner and does absolutely nothing to parse it. This phrase necessarily needs to be deconstructed. “American manhood” means one thing to Joe Bob in Montana. It means something entirely different to Mookie from the Bronx. Likewise, fictive narratives address the concept of “American manhood” in distinctly different ways. That Wesley does not address these divergent ways in her critique is a failure of this text.

Wesley begins her critique with examples from Richard Harding Davis’s oeuvre, including Real Soldiers of Fortune (1906) and Captain Macklin (1902). The reader is drawn to the final words in this chapter, wherein she notes that “his fiction, which spoke so powerfully to his own generation, [has been] forgotten” |28]. The reader wonders why Wesley opted to foreground the term “contemporary” in her title given the fact that she chose to begin with, indeed include, an author from a previous generation.

Shortly thereafter, Wesley turns her attention to Thom Jones’s collection of stories, The Pugilist at Rest (1993). Here, she draws the reader’s attention to a chiefly maternal action in one story when the character Tom ministers to a fellow soldier whose thumb “is almost blown away” [86]. Wesley longs to read this as a violent sensory experience for Tom. Irrespective of the way Wesley describes what happens to the finger, the fact remains that Tom’s actions are maternal, not violent. As Wesley herself writes, “Tom draws the torn flesh together and stitches it over the exposed bone. Although he is evidently upset by the sight of the damage, Tom perseveres in dressing and taping the injury” [ibid]. For all intents and purposes, Tom, a soldier, is acting as a nurse would, and nurses, in contemporary American culture, and in the fiction that is produced by that culture, are rarely regarded as violent subjects. Wesley refers to this episode as “born of the difficult fraternal care of one solider for another” [ibid]. This statement gives the reader pause, causing him to wonder how caring for another individual can be read as a violent act or, perhaps, adventure.

Structuralist ideas crop up again when Wesley deploys the phrase “American values” in her reading of Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried (1990). In this instance, she includes an excerpt from the text that she seems to think is an adequate representation of these “American values”: “[Mary Kiley] believes that she and her boyfriend will marry, live together in a perfect home, produce three perfect children, and after a long fulfilling life, expire in one another’s arms to share eternity” [106]. Wesley fails to consider that not every single American individual shares in these values. Similar to her murky conceit of “American manhood,” her use of the phrase “American values” is limiting.

Wesley makes one unimpressive attempt to expand her critique by devoting a chapter to two “racialized” texts, Ernest Gaines’s A Gathering of Old Men (1983) and Walter Mosley’s Devil in a Blue Dress (1990). Again, Wesley’s myopic vision—her belief in a singular brand of American violence—guides her critique. In particular, the reader is discouraged by her take on an episode in Gaines’s text, wherein the titular old men respond to a racist sheriff who purportedly represents the law [120]. The men’s actions signify their doubt as to the legitimacy of this sheriff’s claim of representing the law. In response to his posing and preening, the men choose not to respond at all. This is a response to violence (or potential violence) on the sheriff’s part that is not itself violence. Indeed, this example might best be read as a counternarrative to the idea that violence begets violence. Wesley, however, chooses to dismiss it, giving it a cursory reading at best.

This chapter is followed by one that tries—and fails—to read whiteness as a racialized trope. Here, Wesley is concerned with examining “white epics” (the title of the chapter) by Russell Banks and Don Delillo. The reader is reminded of Wesley’s limited style of critique once he encounters this excerpt: “Concern with the special problems and prerogatives of black knowledge and power makes the contemporary black detective narratives of Ernest Gaines and Walter Mosley distinct from the ‘white’ epic” [138]. Immediately, the reader wonders: why is the word white placed in quotation marks? Why is blackness always already constitutive of a racialized body but whiteness is conceived of as a putative race? Wesley is ready and willing to point this tendency out in texts by other authors—consider her reading of Ernest Hemingway’s short story “The Battler" (1925): “The seven-page story identifies Bugs in terms of race no fewer than twenty-five times. Whereas Ad Francis is occasionally labeled as ‘the ex-prizefighter,’ Bugs is constantly tagged as ‘the negro’” [170]—– but is unable to realize how her own critique lends credence to the idea.

Throughout Violent Adventure, Wesley’s treatments of texts strike the reader as almost pointlessly brief. This is probably a result of attempting to do too much in such a slim monograph. One example of Wesley’s inclination towards brevity can be found on pages 31-32, wherein she attempts a textual analysis of thirteen short stories by thirteen very different authors in one (!) paragraph. This is in stark contrast to the following pages in which she offers an in-depth discussion of a Faulkner story and of one by Borden Chase. Here, she allows herself enough space to unpack the texts fully. Another difficulty with Violent Adventure is the inclusion of a terrific discussion [94] of Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage (1897). The reader is grateful for this explication because the text certainly adds to her overall critique of war novels. Nonetheless, the reader cannot help but notice that this text is not contemporary, yet Wesley treats it (in terms of length of critique) as if it were.

To reiterate, Violent Adventure is a frustrating text because of the structuralist fashion in which Wesley describes “American” manhood, values and violence. A related quandary involves the way she writes about American history, as seen in this excerpt:

The genre of the American war story descends historically from the epic depiction of Greek gods and Roman heroes through the exploits of extraordinary British leaders to the confusions of ordinary young men so evident in stories about the war in Vietnam. [92]

Given the fact that the vast majority of American soldiers killed and wounded in Vietnam were of black and Hispanic descent, this assessment seems limiting. This is not to say that a black or Hispanic soldier cannot identify with Greek gods and Roman heroes, or be inserted into a narrative that relies on Greco-Roman traditions. This is, however, an incentive to consider what vestiges we choose to take as our history. It matters then that Wesley wrongly cites the bombing of Pearl Harbor as the beginning of World War II [95]. This mistake is evidentiary of her inability to step outside of her explicitly American context to see how life is lived, and violence is constructed and played out, in other parts of the world. This mistake also signals an inability of Wesley’s to consider how violence is played out interstitially in America, along, for instance, racial lines.

When Wesley suggests that “Instead of uncritically condemning violent representation, let us learn what it has to teach” [xv], she is arguing for a more sophisticated way of studying violence—one that avoids a premature dismissal that presumes that violence is inherently wrong. This is a wise observation that is picked up later in the text when she notes, “The most important effect of narrative violence derives from its ability to pattern our expectations” [23]. The question is: does violence in literature imitate life or vice versa? Violent Adventure begins to address that question, but only in a limited fashion. By presuming that there is a structuralist form of American violence that American men are well-versed in solely by their birthright, Wesley’s critique is easily dismissed.


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