By Kevin Grauke
Queen's Ferry Press. 201 pp. $14.95
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Reviewed by Brendan Rastetter
In Shadows of Men, the debut short-story collection by Kevin Grauke, we are presented with 13 stories about maleness at different stages of men's lives.
Grauke centers his stories on Texas, where he was born and raised. Each character is revealed to be deeply insecure with his masculinity, whether due to external causes or internal struggle.
From a stay-at-home father to a boy going through puberty, the height of masculine insecurity, each protagonist has a voice worth listening to. Grauke deftly avoids stereotypical literary responses and takes us beneath the surface of his characters to discover sensitive, flawed men deeply affected by the patriarchal society that raised them.
In the story "The New Father," we meet Lawrence, a modern day househusband who spends his time taking care of his son, Daniel, while his wife is away at work.
In occupying a typical female role, Lawrence causes us to question our preconceived notions of fatherhood. He's insecure in his role, imagining the women of the neighborhood, who are mysteriously absent, referring to him as "the father" when he takes Daniel out for their daily afternoon stroll. He hears imaginary gossip about himself, speculating on his marriage status and sexuality, and wants to defend his masculinity.
His insecurities are clear, but it's in the moments that Lawrence spends thinking about raising Daniel into the man he will become that we get a true sense of who he really is.
Lawrence represents a new idea of fatherhood. He wonders whether it's odd that he finds his son to be so precious that he could eat him up and whether his father had ever looked upon him the same way. He wants to accost anyone who looks at his son and doesn't comment on how beautiful he is. He shows us that it's normal for a father to look lovingly upon his son, that it's OK for a father to admit that he loves his son and to be affectionate rather than constantly stern and tough.
"A Good Son," a story that I wish I'd written, is another standout. The overarching theme of this book is patriarchy's effect on male thinking and nature. This couldn't be more relevant to a story about a son and his troubled relationship with his unsympathetic father.
Nathan is a paperboy going through puberty and wakes one day to extreme pain in his testicles. He thinks that he's dying and, rather than seek help from his father, he chooses to remain in pain and throws away his customers' newspapers for two days.
This leads to an embarrassing confrontation with a neighbor in which his father shows a lack of gumption. Nathan begins to associate his father's shortcomings with his own failings, his inability to be like other, more macho boys at school. He blames his father for not allowing him to become the boy he could have been.
It's pretty natural for children to blame their parents for their problems, but this particular story strikes a chord. Nathan's father has been largely absent. A mild-tempered man, his disposition seems completely missing from Nathan's repertoire. Nathan seems to have constructed his masculinity and male image from stereotypes of maleness likely perpetuated by his peers and what he's witnessed in the media.
Then the time comes for Nathan's father to show the stereotypical bulldog anger of "macho men" and he refuses to do so, thus failing in Nathan's eyes.
The fault here is the father's. Sometimes absent, he sees his son only as he wants to see him, as a good boy who can do no wrong. Rather than instill values in Nathan, he assumes that he'll just magically pick them up. Nathan's father could take a page from Lawrence, the stay-at-home dad, on positive patriarchy.
Nathan and Lawrence, like all the males in Shadows of Men, are various types of introverts who have lost something or have something to prove. Grauke gives each a distinct and relatable voice that allows you to sympathize with even the worst of them. We are privileged to inhabit each of their lives for a few pages and it hurts when we have to let them go because we've begun to feel protective of them.
Credit Grauke for a achieving a not-so-simple task: taking 13 male characters and allowing them to be whatever they become. They aren't stereotypes of men and boys. They're wonderfully flawed males who each represents what is right and wrong with masculinity today.
Whether you're male or female, a father leaves his imprint on you. Present or absent, he is a part of you and will influence your life and the lives of your children and those around you.
However, it's what you choose to take or not take from your experiences that constructs your identity. Grauke makes it clear that masculinity is not something you can pin down. Rather, it's a flexible idea operating within and without the influence of patriarchy.