Masculinity, like so many societal constructs, perpetually teeters on the edge of a thousand shaky assumptions.
We may think we know what it is, and what it is not, but the truth is, it’s a hazily grouped together set of ideas that when put to the test, often come up wanting.
Just how wanting is impressively and movingly explored in Ben Hobson’s masterfully-executed, deeply-affecting debut novel To Become a Whale, which explores what it means to be a man, or at least the concept of it, from various perspectives but most significantly, from the viewpoint of 13-year-old Sam Keogh.
Still mourning the untimely death of his mother when he is whisked off to the whaling station in Tangalooma on Moreton Island in its dying days of production in 1961 (it closes the following year) by his grieving, emotionally-remote, often-absent father, Sam is a young man in freefall.
Nurtured as a kind, sensitive, emotionally self-aware soul by his endlessly-attentive mother, he is shocked to encounter a world where people mask their true feelings, speak of traumatic life events with a gruff sentence or two, and where work is the be-all and end-all of someone’s worth.
“The boy sat back. He had no immediate emotional response to what his father had said, which aroused a faint curiosity regarding the state of his soul. If what his father had said was true, she should damn well bloody care, but there in the pit of him was nothing at all. Did it all mean nothing now? In light of her passing were all things now mute?” (P. 15)
You could argue it’s all part of growing up but given the speed and ferocity of Sam’s immersion into the unreconstructed world of early-’60s manhood, where emotions are a liability and self-awareness near-to-none-existent, or at least, it’s public expression, you can well understand why he struggles mightily to make sense of it all.
Under any circumstances, this would be an ordeal by existential fire, but in the mire of grief and its world-shaking hellishness where everything you value and love is shaken to the core, it’s a well-nigh impossible experience to process.
Regardless of where Sam’s dad Walter is coming from, and it’s a world largely made up of emotional repression, being “manly” (whatever the hell that is) and doing a good solid day’s work (and it turns out some genuine vulnerability, rarely expressed), it’s not somewhere Sam is comfortable being, and as he witnesses more and more of the hardcore masculinity around him, he vows again and again to remain true to who he is and who his mother, his only fully-present carer growing up, raised him to be.
That’s easier said than done, of course, since he is, after all, a 13-year-old boy, caught between these vows and his desperate need for love and approval from his emotionally-contrary father (and the wider group of men around him), who can be affectionate and understanding one minute and brutishly dismissive, and caustically angry another.
Still processing what it means to be alive, let alone a man, Sam is buffeted by competing demands and positions, embodied in Phil, his father’s kind-of friend and fellow whaling station worker, who is at once real and honest, speaking of and demonstrating his love of music and dissatisfaction with his current job and yet complicit in upholding a version of masculinity that is aloof, actions-oriented and rough-and-tumble in a way Sam simply can’t relate to.
Hobson manages, with a deftness and thoughtfulness that will have you nodding in recognition page after page, to examine with an emotionally-accessible profundity the complexity of masculinity, particularly as it relates to the fraught world of father-son relations, especially those being tested in the crucible of pain and loss.
“He struggled back to shore, pumping his arms, the fear a cold wrench in his sternum. Soon he was on the beach again, shivering, hugging himself, crying. He walked home slowly, torch in hand, telling his mother that he was sorry he had tried to be cruel when she’d raised him to be kind.” (P. 283)
It’s his ability to balance this examination of a state of humanity that, like pretty much everything about being a person, has no real, firm, set answer – it’s all things to everyone essentially – while still telling the harrowingly real story of Sam and his unwilling immersion into a terrifying new world that grants To Become a Whale so much of its exquisitely-expressed emotional resonance.
As a gay man who grew up being virulently teased for not meeting what were presented as comprehensively-agreed upon notions of masculinity, and who felt himself buffeted at every turn by a world he didn’t understand nor really wanted to be a part of, I connected deeply with Sam’s beautifully-wrought character.
His turmoil, his need for longing and yet equally powerful desire to stay true to himself and his mother’s notion’s of humanity, struck a deep chord, especially as it is given powerful, impressively-articulate voice by Hobson.
To Become a Whale is that rare beast – a novel with some raw, artfully-expressed notions on masculinity, a debate that continues to this day – Hobson’s writing is sublime, beautiful and real all at once, as much poetic as it is insightful – and the immensely-personal, moving story of one young man’s struggle to define what it means for him in the midst of a tumultuous, and you suspect, defining period in his life.