Though no millennial metrosexual, I sleep next to my laptop, and this morning, an email came from a Japanese literary journal, Monkey, to ask me to name a short story I wish I had written. Editor Motoyuki Shibata also requested a one-hundred word explanation, which I promptly knocked out while sipping an Earl Grey at my kitchen table. Done, I had a breakfast of spaghetti with tomato sauce, SPAM, salami and chunks of cheddar cheese. You had to see it.
Though I immediately thought of Borges, Kafka and even Walser, I decided on Hemingway’s “The Sea Change,” a rather obscure yet groundbreaking story about a man losing his girlfriend to a woman. It’s most pertinent to our time. As with “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber,” “The End of Something,” “A Very Short Story” or The Sun Also Rises, etc., macho Hemingway is dealing with male impotence. “The Sea Change,” though, is his most succinct, radical, funny and prophetic treatment of the theme.
As they argue, two men enter and fuss with the bartender over looking well or gaining weight. Queer talk, basically. Joining them at the bar after his girlfriend has left, the protagonist declares, “I’m a different man.” The gay guys have to make room for him.
“In the old days HortonsBay was a lumbering town. No one who lived in it was out of sound of the big saws in the mill by the lake. Then one year there were no more logs to make lumber. The lumber schooners came into the bay and were loaded with the cut of the mill that stood stacked in the yard. All the piles of lumber were carried away. The big mill building had all its machinery that was removable taken out and hoisted on board one of the schooners by the men who had worked in the mill. The schooner moved out of the bay toward the open lake, carrying the two great saws, the travelling carriage that hurled the logs against the revolving, circular saws and all the rollers, wheels, belts and iron piled on a hull-deep load of lumber. Its open hold covered with canvas and lashed tight, the sails of the schooner filled and it moved out into the open lake, carrying with it everything that had made the mill a mill and HortonsBay a town.”
When “The End of Something” was published in 1925, a post-productive town like HortonsBay was an anomaly. Now, there are thousands across America. Deprived of a manly job, the story’s male protagonist, Nick, is also neutered. Out fishing with his girlfriend, he’s cranky and won’t even eat a lunch she’s packed for him. They fight.
Though Marjorie tells him to shut up, she never loses her composure. She’s much more woman than he is man, for sure, and even more “man” than he is, if one indulges the entirely untrue stereotype of the female as prone to being irrational or hysterical. Nick is the bitch here.
With factories closing, farms mechanizing, families breaking up and communities disintegrating, men today are mostly tattooed husks, especially if they’re of the lower class where traditional sex roles had always been the bedrock. Many are too poor to start or maintain a family. Others are fathers only in the sense that they must send a child support check once a month. Already without authority and owning next to nothing, many can’t even use their muscles.
Manly virtue has become a quaint, snicker-provoking concept. In a world of constant flux and no memory, honor and dignity mean nothing, since just about any act, depraved or noble, is either unseen or quickly forgotten. Faceless and nameless, the feeble lash out at strangers online. Hopeless sons and failed dads, they hanker for an uber daddy, be it some politician, the Pope or even a totalitarian state.
Though day-to-day male virtues are nearly invisible yet steadfast, role models for young men are cocky singers, badass movie stars and hypermasculine athletes. Outside the screens, ordinary men increasingly slouch and slump.
Consider 53-year-old Joe, a lifelong resident of Fishtown, a Philly post-industrial neighborhood made infamous by Charles Murray. Joe has been a junkie, off and on, for much of his adult life. For 7 1/2 years, Joe had a Vietnamese girlfriend, Tien, but he spent four of those years locked up for credit card fraud. Inside, Joe subscribed to Asian Girls and Forty Something, he said to me. When Joe got out in ‘84, Tien bought him a decent used car and a $1,000 Rolex watch, and she was just a nursing student. Her name means “fairy,” by the way.
Years after he had broken up with Tien, Joe saw her walking up the steps of an elevated train station, “I was with this prostitute but I said, ‘Go over to that park and wait for me,’ then I ran to catch up with Tien. I felt this small, man,” and he kept his hands about six inches apart. “I said to her that I was broke and really needed money, so she gave me a twenty. That was the last time I ever saw Tien.”
Consider 20-year-old Jay, an unemployed college dropout who lives with his divorced dad. Jay’s parents broke up mostly because his executive dad was jobless for three years. All day, Jay’s locked inside his room, surfing the internet or steering that joystick. Jay has no friends, much less a girlfriend. Not a bad looking kid, Jay was bright and confident enough in high school to win the California Speech Championship in thematic interpretation. Jay lives in a pleasant, well-landscaped Fremont neighborhood, which is nice, I suppose, if you have somewhere to go each day. Otherwise, there’s nothing around to even be kicked out of. Even if Jay was old enough to drink, there’s no bar nearby. There’s Bombay Pizza, “Home Of The Curry Pizza,” but that’s no place to chill. In such a bedroom “community,” you’re lost if you’re not plugged in to school or work. There is nothing and no one to resocialize you, so for a young man, this means that Grand Theft Auto, Minecraft and YouJizz will be your best companions. Since Jay already had a nervous breakdown, his dad doesn’t want to push him. “What should I do? What will he do when I die?”
A third of Americans under 35 now live with their parents, and half of them spend half of their incomes servicing debts. You’re not likely to get married if you’re living with mom and dad, that’s for sure, but soon enough, we will see three generations under one roof again, out of economic necessity. We will also see more couples with their kids all in one room. Poor people worldwide already live this way, and we are poor.
Linh Dinh is the author of two books of stories, five of poems, and a novel, Love Like Hate. He’s tracking our deteriorating socialscape through his frequently updated photo blog, Postcards from the End of America.