For those who haven't yet encountered his writing in magazines like the New Republic and The Believer, Kent Russell's debut collection of journalism and personal essays serves as a convenient introduction to his distinctive voice and his work exploring some of the more remote reaches of American popular culture.
Russell's vivid style is in full flower with his account of the Gathering of the Juggalos, a Woodstock-like music festival created by Psychopathic Records, the label founded by Insane Clown Posse. While he has a keen eye for some of the more dubious aspects of an event he calls an "admixture of third-rate fun fair and perdition," Russell doesn't succumb to the temptation to make easy sport of it. His measured approach is similar in a profile of Tim Friede. A truck plant worker from Fond du Lac, Wis., Friede has devoted his life to immunizing himself against the venom of the world's deadliest snakes, and Russell accords grudging respect to a man who "was born a freak of nature, being within it yet transcending it."
Russell is an avid sports fan, and his passion is reflected in the story of John Brophy, a former hockey enforcer, whose role was to mete out physical punishment to opponents, now living out his last days in an assisted living facility in Nova Scotia. In "Artisanal Ball," he provides a fascinating glimpse into the Amish world of Lancaster County, Pa., describing the fiercely competitive baseball played by young men in their period of Rumspringa, the time when they are permitted to experience life outside their traditional culture.
There are repeated interludes throughout the book recounting a visit Russell pays to his parents in California in the fall of 2013. Summoned there by his father, who hints that he may be dying, Russell writes essays (titled like diary entries, with a date only), that are part family history, part ill-matched buddy story. Above all, they're vulnerable dispatches negotiating the generational tensions between two men, one passing through late middle age and the other stumbling into early adulthood. Russell urges his father to accompany him on a trip to the latter's Ohio birthplace, a journey the elder Russell repeatedly deflects. Instead, they embark on an overnight drive down the northern California coast, a trip whose high points include stops at the homes of Jack London and William Randolph Hearst.
Whether it's hip-hop, venomous snakes or long-buried family memories, Kent Russell is the kind of writer whose sharp vision and lively prose have the power to seduce readers into paying attention to subjects they might never imagine were engaging. --Harvey Freedenberg, attorney and freelance reviewer
Shelf Talker: Kent Russell's first collection of journalism and personal essays explores some of the more remote reaches of American pop culture and his family history.