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Masculinity in Joseph O’Neill’s Short Story Collection Good Trouble

Really, there are precious few moments in modern life when one can express masculinity; or alternately, when one has his masculinity tested.  Joseph O’Neill’s short story collection Good Trouble depicts just such scenarios.  That said, they bear more resemblance to Seinfeld than Hemingway in their everyday ordinariness and ambivalence.  In other words, this is masculinity in the 21st century, at a crossroads.   

Two stories in Good Trouble feature middle-aged who find themselves involved with the fertility clinic industry.  In “The Trusted Traveler,” unwelcome guest Jack Bail explains that that he and his wife tried “the IVF thing” but it “didn’t work out” (26).  Now he’s being hounded for a $900 bill for the storage of his semen at a clinic, and he cannot seem to extricate himself from the ongoing expense associated with the fertility medical industry.   Jack lacks social awareness; he cannot seem to get the message that the narrator doesn’t want to maintain their tenuous friendship.  His brush with IVF is merely another symptom of his misfortune.  

In “Ponchos,” fertility troubles are a more central focus.  William and Elisa have tried unsuccessfully for two years to produce a child.  They are both academics, William a poet, though an uninspired one at the moment.  William’s conception of what constitutes an attractive woman is revealing: “he could never fully respect a woman who lacked knowledge of the father of modern drama,” (92), Henrik Ibsen.  Now that he has his intellectual wife, though, still all is not well:  

He was hampered by a strong sense that his wife was, in substance, submitting to his fleshy trespass for reproductive purposes, and as a result her naked body–that of a small, boyish, dark-haired woman–was horribly emptied of erotic significance. (98)

There was no passion left in this marriage.  Their desperation to reproduce has not helped the situation.  They then decide to consult a fertility specialist, which results in Elisa having to take an injection 15 days out of the month with unpleasant side effects.  William has to visit the fertility clinic for semen samples a couple times a month, an experience which embarrasses him and fills him with dread.  Though Elisa tries to make the best of the situation, it is clear that from William’s perspective the marriage has no erotic flavor anymore, if it ever did. 

In both “Ponchos” and “The Trusted Traveler,” hapless men and their wives are caught up in a holding pattern of medical fertility treatment.  This predicament, particularly in “Ponchos,” makes life grueling and unpleasant, hardly a situation in which they feel their masculinity is expressed.  Being instructed to produce a semen sample into a cup by a nurse is not a great expression of virility.  

Being instructed to produce a semen sample into a cup by a nurse is not a great expression of virility.  

Elsewhere in Good Trouble, men find their masculinity challenged more directly.  Such is the case in “Poltroon Husband.”  When the narrator and his wife Jayne hear an ominous sound downstairs in their rural home in Arizona, the narrator finds himself paralyzed: “Here I became strongly conscious of my incapacitation” (109), he explains.  It is his wife instead who will go downstairs to investigate the noise.  The narrator’s comically intellectual description of his “incapacitation” is a subterfuge for what he really feels which is fear, and then shame for being afraid.  As a write-up in the National Review put it, the narrator contrives “an elaborate excuse for his cowardice.” Since this incident, though no intruder had been discovered, things are not quite right with his wife.  The narrator is tortured by his wife’s change since this emasculating incident: 

It’s quite possible that she’s forgotten all about the night of noises.  Certainly, the alternative scenario is very improbable: that hers is a calculated muteness.  That she is keeping the facts from me on purpose.  It would be most unlike Jayne to do such a thing. (115)   

The narrator’s attempts to recover his image as a manly husband for his wife are increasingly pathetic; yet for all that, the marriage is not necessarily doomed.  They just peter on in a marriage which has been ineffably shaken.  

“The Mustache in 2010” explores the theme of masculinity first by contemplating the place of facial hair in the 21st century.  The rise and fall of the mustache is reviewed.  By 2010, the protagonist is in good company as he chooses to shave “only every third Monday morning” (133), giving him a hipster look so popular young, urban white middle-class professionals.  Sometimes he would experiment with not shaving his mustache, or make Elvis sideburns, just as a joke before he would finish shaving.  

His wife Viv is amused by these antics.  But when they socialize with their friends and their friends’ parents, she is less amused. Her friend’s father (referred to simply as “Dad”)  will not address Viv when she asks him questions about an anecdote he tells about his time as a policeman in which he took the ricochet of a bullet.  Instead, “Dad had been addressing her husband” (136).  This perceived misogynistic slight is too much for Viv, who then goes to great lengths to outbid “Dad” on a service that she doesn’t really need, just for the purpose of emasculating him.  The retired cop prefers to address his war stories on the beat to another man–so be it.  Why must she humiliate him?  The woman’s spitefulness is uncalled for.

At last we have a would-be-hero in the final short story of Good Trouble, “The Sinking of Houston”: A father learns that his son has been mugged of his iPhone in a subway train.  The father is briefly troubled by the lack of resistance in the incident: 

“To repeat: there were three of them–my son plus his two friends.  Three young males” (148).  

The father assures his son he did the right thing; after all, the black man that robbed him was armed with a gun.  But he also then begins making use of his tracking app to stalk his son’s mugger and plan his vengeance: 

 “Like every criminal he has overlooked a detail.  That kid he threatened and robbed?  That kid is my son” (152).  

It seems that the father might be the redeemer of middle-class white male masculinity.  We are hoping for such redemption when he leaves his apartment with a baseball bat at the moment the criminal is near his neighborhood.  Yet the story ends without any confrontation or resolution. 

The ending is frustratingly ambiguous, as are many of the short stories in Good Trouble.  That said, the collection is highly enjoyable reading and offers a window into the state of White middle-class intellectuals attempting to assert their masculinity in a world which is not particularly eager to receive it. 

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