When Michael Messner was a boy growing up in Northern California, annual hunting trips with his father and grandfather offered a ritual of connection and sport infused with symbol and meaning. While hunting, men like his father and grandfather were more than regular guys to Messner; they were larger than life, battle-ready, full of ritual and bravery. One year, when he was 21, Messner chose to put down a hunting rifle for the last time, a story told in King of the Wild Suburb: A Memoir of Fathers, Sons and Guns.
Messner, a smart sociologist with a keen eye for detail and nuance, has written a subtle and moving book about what it meant to put down that rifle, and what it meant for his own life and relationship with his sons to take a different turn than that of his father and grandfather. Where the elder Messners were military men with a taste for the hunt, Michael is a reluctant warrior trying to find new definitions of manhood and masculinity. In one of the book’s most moving scenes, fifteen year hold Messner actually does kill his first buck, only to feel profound shame and guilt over the deed. As Messner writes:
For Gramps and Dad, I believe this was a proud coming-of-age moment that connected them to me and to each other. For me, it was that too, but also something other… What my fantasy had not anticipated was the well of empathy that bubbled up within me, the sense of foul play that I felt in having shot this buck as he blindly pursued a mate, and my visceral disgust with the bloody mess of it all.
From this moment on, Messner and the reader know that hunting will never be a permanent part of his legacy as it was for his father and grandfather. What makes this book so moving and thoughtful are the connections between fathers and sons that Messner both ponders and experiences even as he defines a new culture of masculinity for himself and his own sons. Highly recommended.