Why Do Young Male Writers Love Icky, Tough Guy Deadbeats?

Other contemporary writers who’ve embraced something like this approach in their work include Sam Lipsyte, whose most recent novel, the brilliant and finally life-affirming Home Land, features a sharp-tongued misanthrope named Teabag who submits sad, usually abusive letters to his high-school alumni newsletter; John Niven, whose recently published Kill Your Friends is narrated by an unscrupulous, misogynistic talent scout who sees rot in everyone and everything; Mark Sarvas, whose Harry, Revised is about a deadbeat in the throes of midlife crisis; and Alan Moore, whose massively popular graphic novel Watchmen has at its center a hard-right vigilante named Rorschach, who makes a life of hunting the cretins he believes to be responsible for the moral decrepitude he sees all around him.

Over the past decade or so, characters like these seem to have become the vehicle of choice for young male writers seeking to express a certain sort of disaffection. More than that, as Mr. Palanhiuk’s blockbuster success has demonstrated, they’ve become alarmingly lucrative cash cows—resonant with millions of readers and inspirational to scores of budding authors.

But why, exactly?

“Hard fought bitterness or acidity feels like it gives you a framework for a kind of angry comedy that is, if not necessarily cathartic, at least accommodating enough to encompass an entertaingly hostile, plausible inner life,” said literary agent Jim Rutman, who represents among others Beautiful Children author Charles Bock. “Everything that is potentially bothersome can be fit into that mold. It’s fun to write angry. And you can sort of take cover behind this deeply bothered persona you’ve invented and you can go anywhere with it. You grant yourself permission and access. I guess it’s a species of irreverence.”

Readers, in Mr. Rutman’s view, respond to such characters because “if you are self-loathing enough, then you have access to difficult truths that other people would be loath to put forth. If you are invested in the fact that you are not even a candidate for any meaningful connection with anyone, then you let loose with all the painful honesty at your disposal.”

Daniel Menaker, formerly the editor in chief of Random House and the fiction editor at The New Yorker before that, said the modern antihero—specifically as he appears in the work of young men—has his roots in women’s liberation and the ambiguity of gender roles. 

“I think maybe what’s developing here is there are two kinds of young, alienated heroes,” said Mr. Menaker, who has edited books by both Gary Shteyngart and Benjamin Kunkel. “One is the nerd: the somewhat indulged, un-grown-up guy who has sort of philosophical ideas or objections to society and doesn’t know what to do with himself. The other branch of people are ones who are not fully socially or politically integrated—they’re the tough guys.”

Both variations, Mr. Menaker said, can be seen as a “sociological outgrowth of some gender-role ambiguity introduced beginning in the ’60s or ’70s, when the way a young guy ought to be became less clear.”

Mr. Munson, for his part, who said he has read only one book by Mr. Palahniuk, chalks it up to the inevitable disillusionment of idealistic people.

“I just think it’s because of something enduring in the way our society is set up that makes it kind of eternally relevant,” Mr. Munson said. “I think, basically, we’re still living with the same kind of moral and political systems that saw the birth of the Underground Man and Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time. There are superficial differences, in the sense that now it’s much more permissible to be frank about violence and sex than it was even 50 years ago, but especially in America, where we kind of drink in these ideas about freedom and equality from a very young age, you have to be very, very unperceptive not to see the disjunction between what we aspire to and what we achieve, and I think for some people that’s a very tragic, embittering thing.”

lneyfakh@observer.com