Lies My Machismo Told Me
Matt Kernicky (English) is working on his Master’s thesis titled “Lies My Machismo Told Me: Myth As Avoidant Coping Strategy in Bonnie Jo Campbell’s American Salvage,” examining the representation of masculinity in Bonnie Jo Campbell’s work.
In American Salvage, author Bonnie Jo Campbell demonstrates profound insight into the anxious lives of those living in the unstable first decade of the new millennium. This collection of short stories delves deep into the psychology and motivation of broken, desperate protagonists who often find themselves either incapable or unwilling to adapt to an unforgiving world. And yet, there is “salvage”, a common theme of redemption that has less to do with desired outcomes than it does with grieving, accepting loss and finding beauty in unexpected places.
The impact of this uncertainty on Campbell’s male characters is particularly compelling. Since so much of normative masculinity is based on a perceived sense of power, the insecurity that these men face threatens to upend that power. This paper addresses the way these male protagonists respond to challenges to their perceived control and the impact this has upon self valuation.
A recurring pattern is the dependence upon myth making as the primary means of preserving the masculine ego. In one story, The Burn, Campbell’s protagonist Jim fabricates an image of woman as healer. This allows the protagonist to preserve his bravado while the female figure attends to his emotional release and comfort. Unfortunately, the women Jim encounters don’t meet Jim’s fantastic expectations. Fantasy collides with reality in each of the stories discussed, resulting in desperate attempts to bolster fragile masculine egos.
The mythologies in American Salvage are very different from what is most commonly thought of when using the term. To understand the complexities of Campbell’s myth makers, The Yard Man is compared with the tale of Hades and Persephone found in the Hymn To Demeter. Both stories clarify ideas that would otherwise be more difficult to understand. However, they differ sharply in how closely they align with social norms. Hymn To Demeter reinforces established behaviors, where The Yard Man attempts to make sense of a world where normative behavior is increasingly ineffectual.
None of these stories release narrative tension completely. Each is left in varying degrees of uncertainty--particularly in regard to the boundaries of masculine identity. Yet in each case, the collision between myth and mundane results in a new consciousness of the fables these men tell themselves. This awareness provides these men a new opportunity to actively shape their concepts of masculinity.