Poor battered manhood! Faludi has got it just right

The Argument

This service-economy era has provided gelded fathers begetting broken sons.

October 10, 1999|By Jim Haner | Jim Haner,Sun Staff

The rabbit broke from the clump of scrub at my father's feet -- a scrambling streak of brown against a grassy backdrop of mottled greens and umber. Startled, my 11-year-old heart leaped, and I froze with a shotgun in my hands.

In a smooth arc, my dad drew his .22-caliber revolver from its holster and fired a single shot that caught the rabbit on the fly and sent it tumbling into a heap of stew meat. One shot. At a range of 10 yards. With a pistol, no less.

"Better to miss than not shoot at all," he said, as he holstered the gun. "You think about it too long, and the chance will be gone."

In March, my father died when his heart gave out at the relatively young age of 65. Forced into early retirement from a white-collar government job, he had spent most of his last decade drunk and brooding in a rundown frame house on the edge of the New Jersey Pine Barrens.

I remember him now on that frosted autumn morning on a hillside in upstate New York above my grandfather's farm. It was here, in the hard splendor of the Adirondack Mountains, that my dad learned to shoot and kill, trap and skin, till and reap. He had acquired self-sufficiency before he was 16.

Why, then, his final broken condition?

If history tells us anything it is that we are all shaped by the times in which we live. And the past 50 years have not been kind to men like my father, according to a new book by feminist author Susan Faludi, "Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man" (William Morrow and Co. 647 pages. $27.50).

An inspired work of new wave anthropology, "Stiffed" weaves together decades of historical fact, statistical measures, conventional wisdom and uncommon insight from unlikely sources to reveal deep and troubling truths about the state of American manhood.

At its core, the book is powerfully convincing that a large segment of the male population who once proudly called themselves "working class" or "middle class" or "world class" have been getting screwed. And we have only just begun to ride the resulting psychosocial tilt-o-whirl.

All of this will strike a great many critics as heresy or hell broth, depending on whether they come from the left or right. And come they will. Academic nitpickers who have never held a wrench, feel-good Wall Street boosters fat on overvalued stock and the usual babbling ideologues. All will gather round the stake chanting her name.

It should come as some comfort to Faludi that the truth is on her side.

Stripped of their usefulness in the transition from a brawny industrial economy to a feminized service-based workplace, "downsized" in post-Cold War defense industry cutbacks, haunted by memories of stalemate in Korea and previously unthinkable defeat in Vietnam, American men have been swinging from rage to confusion to indolence.

"If men are masters of their fate," Faludi asks, "what do they do about the unspoken sense that they are being mastered, in the marketplace and at home, by forces that seem to be sweeping away the soil beneath their feet."

What they do is drink. And brood. And look for someone to blame.

They're the so-called "Angry White Males" who bolstered the ranks of Republican zealotry in the past decade, unleashing Newt and Rush and former California Gov. Pete Wilson -- the anti-immigrant demagogue and affirmative action buster.

For their support, the working stiffs were repaid with GATT and NAFTA and the accelerated exportation of their jobs overseas. And it wasn't just blue-collar Caucasians who lost their standing.

In one of the saddest passages in Faludi's book, a middle-aged aerospace engineer laid off from McDonnell Douglas because of defense cutbacks is reduced to handing out snack samples at grocery stores, dressed in a Mr. Peanut costume. His wife dumps him. Then, he loses that job too.

He is "The Incredible Shrinking Man" made real, a bona fide master of the universe shriveled into a cartoon shell.

Similarly, the African-American and Hispanic shipyard workers of Philadelphia, Long Beach and Portsmouth who busted their asses to keep the U.S. armada afloat were thrown overboard into the cold chop of the new world order -- obsolete skills in hand.

Don't worry about those mortgage payments, fellas. There's jobs galore down at the mall. As Willy Loman put it in "Death of a Salesman": "A man who can't handle tools is not a man." But what of the man who has tools and no place to ply them?

In Faludi's construct, the "promise of prosperity" handed down gift-wrapped to these men by the generation that crushed the Axis aggressors in World War II and built the suburban Shangri-Las of Levittown, N.Y., and Lakewood, Calif. is now revealed to be a box of worms.

The gift-givers have been left disappointed in their progeny's inability to make good on the legacy. And the receivers are alternately racked by guilt and furious that they were lied to.

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