For Peter Peterson and Marlow Imlay,
two of the last great American barbers
The dedication in Todd Robert Petersen’s Rift is not merely incidental. The barbershop is a significant symbol in the book. Ah, barbershops. Okay. Before we move on, you’ll have to allow for a personal digression:
I’ve only been to a true, honest-to-goodness barbershop once. It’s just down the street from my house and it’s far more expensive than the cheap back-alley haircuts I usually get and it is a purely man’s world–a foreign country I call Mansmansylvania–littered with copies of National Geographic and racing and fishing mags and Playboys and it also has Phil who gave me the best damn haircut of my life (to use the manly vernacular).
But I’m a kid from suburbia and the stink of testosterone is something we washed off our bodies before mother or pretty girl in the next row could notice because she was more impressed by my postmodern plays than grease under my fingernails (not that grease under my fingernails has ever been a common occurrence).
Now, any decent masculist can quote stats about the disadvantages boys face in the modern world (our advantage starts ending at conception)–and anyone conscious knows schools were designed for girls–and, arguably, the whole point of churches is to domesticate men and make them into creatures women want to have around.
But at least we Mormons have a lay ministry, right? At least we have home teaching! At least we have more to do than show up for an hour a week, sit next to our wives and hush our children!
But even better than home teaching, the men of Rift have Stucki’s barbershop. A barbershop, filled with men, watching The Magnificent Seven and ribbing each other about getting old, then switching the channel to a violent nature documentary–all on a tv they inherited from a polygamist who couldn’t cowboy up to one of his wives and admit that he bought this tv for himself, woman, and dammit he was going to watch it. (Though one gets the sense that the polygamist isn’t even man enough to to break out the manly vernacular when needed; he’s lost himself in a world of women.)
The hero of this novel is Jens Thorsen, who first made an appearance in Petersen’s short story “Thorsen’s Angle” which, of all the stories in Petersen’s collection Long After Dark, meets William Morris’s praise that Petersen is a “Mormon author who seems to be aware of and grappled with and absorbed some of the lessons of his precursors”–notably, in this case, Douglas Thayer and Levi Peterson–and Jens Thorsen represents the uncorrelated ideal of the Mormon male.
Mormon male heroes include manly men like Joseph Smith who could pull two men up at once and take bone surgery without anesthetic, Captain Moroni who would soon as kill you as let you join the wrong political party, Brigham Young who founded a desert empire and wore a wicked beard, Ammon who cut off arms to teach the gospel, and Joseph F. Smith who said, I’m a Mormon, Yes siree; dyed in the wool, true blue, through and through so shoot me.
But what is the Mormon male asked to do in 2009? Visit a couple mostly active families and teach the 16-17-year-olds about chastity and maybe can some wheat once a year. And we’re willing to do even less.
Where are our men?
Behold, Jens Thorsen. Newly retired, he spends his days caring for widows and saving strangers from rising streams and fixing his truck. He’s unrefined, wears a bolo tie and is feuding with his bishop, but Jens Thorsen is, by Christian math, a great man, for isn’t the greatest the servant of all?
He’s also skilled at avoiding the praise of men for his good works. In fact, it’s unclear through most of the book if he himself is aware the he is doing good. His lack of false humility can be interpreted as pride while his actual pride walks about unveiled. His wife is irritated at his priorities and his grown children are embarrassed by his turkey story.
But if you take away the moments when he is actively engaged in doing good, you have a lost old man with no clear purpose and nothing to do.
Which brings up back to the barbershop.
Look at Stucki’s hands:
Stucki unrolled his bundle and draped the towel around Karl’s neck. He undid the razor and set it on the coffee table and took out the mug and brush. After waggling the brush a few times in the lather, he held out the brush and saw that his hand was trembling slightly. He steadied himself, then lathered Karl’s face. Once the brush made contact with Karl’s skin, the termors disappeared. Thorsen noticed and looked away.
Stucki picked up the razor and stropped it lightly on his sleeve. He watched his hand tremble in the air and then turned the blade flat and pressed it against Karl’s face. As soon as he did, the trembling ceased, and Stucki began taking off the lather in direct, masterful strokes. (226-227)
Stucki has Parkinson’s. Most people don’t know it yet though he has taken a chunk out of one face, but generally speaking, Stucki’s hands work fine when they work.
When they have nothing to do, they shake.
Is it a coincidence that the Latin for hand is man? Men, like hands, needs tasks to be whole.
These old men hang out in the barbershop and they chat and laugh but they are retired and they’ve not much to do.
Until one day a girl arrives who needs their help. Stucki gives her a job in Mansmansylvania but it takes Thorsen, who lets her wash his hair (to plenty of joking, I assure you), to open the way. And soon, while the men seem to be losing their masculinity to shampoos and manicures, in fact, they are rising to the occasion, and saving this damsel-in-distress.
(At this point, I should throw out a spoiler warning.)
And now that you have been warned, on we go.
Towards the end of the novel, Rift takes its greatest break from credulity as the town splits along male/female lines over the barbershop’s damsel-in-distress. The women want her out, but the stronger men, the men who have found new masculine meaning through their service to her, rise to defend her and break from their womenfolk.
I mention this scene for a couple reasons. First, it emphasizes the need for a strong masculine identity that Petersen seems to be campaigning for, but also he undermines his campaign–the men’s rebellion against their feminized society is immediately shot down by God himself (although not in person, I hasten to clarify).
I could easily keep going on this theme for another few thousand words (I have pages of notes and quotes just waiting to flesh out this theme), but I’m writing a review, not a dissertation, and I’ve already spoilered enough.
My point is that this book is about a rift in our culture. Not between men and women necessarily, but between the feminized version of men that we see in our culture today and the type of men who, like Thorsen, can run a backhoe and slop pigs and shoot crows out of the sky and sacrifice his reputation to help a girl no one respects.
The modern Mormon male may wear a tie instead of buckskins to work, but Rift argues that he better still have a bit of Porter Rockwell inside him, who can shoot a goodfornothing one day and cut off his sacred hair for a bald female friend the next.
But it also argues that the only man in an entire town who regularly lives up to that standard is an aging old geezer with not many years to live, and his friends who rise up exactly once. The younger local men include the bishop who’s daughter the damsel-in-distress is (shouldn’t he be doing something?), Pearson( the only boy among the many who left town to ever came back) (and who promptly screws up the hometeaching), and a father who’s lost his own son to prison and doesn’t know what to do.
So where will the next generation of Mormon males come from? Who will bear that standard?
Rift has its flaws (the war between men and women knocked me out of my suspended disbelief for a while), but most of its characters are rich and deep, moving the book well past metaphor. Thorsen isn’t just a symbol of a lost ideal. He is a human being.
The question the book poses is simple: Do we value Jens Thorsen?
And while of course we value Thorsen–we spend the entire book eavesdropping on his mind, so of course we know his value–do we value the gruff old men in our own communities whose minds we cannot see inside?
And if we don’t, is it because we no longer want Mormon males who pull sticks and chop arms and stand up strong when a gun’s to their chest?
Rift asks a question. How will we answer it?
Disclaimer: This review is based on a gratis copy of Rift sent to me by Zarahemla Books, its publisher, which publisher once wasted a year of my life and dozens if not hundreds of hours of labor spent repolishing a manuscript under their editorial guidance only to one day receive a poorly spelled email telling me, essentially, to sit on a sharp stick. It’s my hope that a) the free book and b) the screwing over did not in any way affect my ability to fairly discuss Zarahemla’s newest release by Todd Robert Petersen, whom I have long describes as one of America’s best short story writers.