It’s a strange social political moment to ruminate on the white middle class American male. The patriarchy. The big guys. The ones that ever seem to be in the driver’s seat.
In The Hearts of Men, Nickolas Butler crafts a deft generational story that unfolds the subject he sets forth in the title and sidesteps any pull to demonize or defend. The hearts of men are …
Your brain will connote its own answer to complete the sentence, yes?
I happened to be in Hawaii for my older brother’s wedding while I was finishing The Hearts of Men. My brother is a nuclear engineer in the navy and stationed at Pearl Harbor. With the rest of my family, I followed him down into the industrial innards of the submarine where he lives, works, and is now deployed, skulking around other countries, leagues under secret oceans.
My brother’s stride is different now from his days as everyone’s favorite college bartender. His chest is forward, he salutes men of his same age, but higher rank, tells stories from their former deployment days and shows us the missile room where he slept spooning a torpedo. He still glances, though, ever so slightly toward my father. It’s a small look, and one I’ve noticed before and can only assume is some secret code between fathers and sons. Maybe he’s checking his mark, making adjustments toward duty, courage, and purpose.
It would be trite to say that as a woman reading The Hearts of Men I have come to understand these worlds of men more. But in the first few pages, Nickolas Butler sets up his primary character, thirteen year old Nelson at boy scout camp who tents alone, has no friends, makes self-conscious attempts to connect with his father, misses his mother, but plays the bugle every morning to wake the others and is the best at making fire. I was tethered to this character and his loneliness from then on.
Butler structures the book around three major parts of Nelson’s life: a kid coming of age at Boy Scout camp; a middle-aged adult recovering from traumas of war in Vietnam and reconnecting with his singular childhood friend, Jonathan; and an elderly man in a grandfatherly role to a single mother.
Nelson’s story serves as a broad stage for a cast of fathers, sons, wives, and mothers and sets up potent scenes among them rather instead of linear plot development. Bullying takes on the feeling of Lord of the Flies savagery at scout camp where young Nelson first sees the divide between acceptance and honor. Kindness tremors in the strength of a good mentor showing a young man the beauty and solace of nature, or placing a hand over his heart and speaking of doing what’s right. Maternal power is shown in mothers who both stand guard at home and take up kitchen knives in defense of their sons. Classic masculine values are confounded when a father takes teenage son out for one wild night to show him how easy it is to “fall down” into boredom and infidelity before his son’s last summer at scout camp.
I wasn’t expecting the last act of the story to come from the female perspective of Rachel, a single mother of a teenage son. This section is set in the year 2019 as she navigates what begins as difficult and becomes demoralizing interactions with the fathers of teenage sons. Butler explores the dangers of fear-based violence when those with the most privilege feel oppressed upon that privilege being challenged. (See NPR’s take on Butler’s “angry, white, rural” men here).
So while it could seem misplaced to pick up a book about the white male experience during a time when the voices of minority experiences must be published, purchased, and read in this country, The Hearts of Men is heavy with perspective, both uplifting and grievous, and I recommend adding it to your reading list.