Reading Masculinity

  • David Adams Richards
    Facing the Hunter: Reflections on a Misunderstood Way of Life. Doubleday Canada
  • Christine Ramsay (Editor)
    Making It Like a Man: Canadian Masculinities in Practice. Wilfrid Laurier University Press
  • Todd Babiak
    Toby: A Man. Harper Perennial
Reviewed by Jennifer Hardwick

David Adams Richards begins Facing the Hunter: Reflections on a Misunderstood Way of Life with an anecdote about a Chardonnay-sipping poet who condemns hunting as “deplorable” at a dinner party. Richards minces no words when it comes to his views of “men like this,” whom he sees as “clever enough to have expensive cloth covering their arses, and pleased to carry with them a register of human complaint and a suspicion of certain jobs and of so, so many people.” The passage epitomizes Richards’ disdain for those who disagree with hunting, and it nicely illustrates the tone of his book, which is described as both a memoir and a polemic. It also introduces two divergent representations of masculinity—the educated, sophisticated, arrogant urbanite, and the rugged, rural, outdoorsman—which are long-standing tropes of Canadian male identity.

Richards definitely identifies with and privileges the latter strain of masculinity. He comes from a long line of outdoorsmen and he has great reverence for those who have taken the time to learn about the lands they inhabit. His book is filled with stories of hunting that feature the land, and more specifically his beloved New Brunswick, as a central character. Richards’ New Brunswick is untamed, but not entirely unpredictable; good hunters know how to take their cues from their surroundings and the best hunters are so finely tuned they can almost predict an animal’s whereabouts on any given day. Richards portrays these hunters as heroes; they exude wisdom and skill, and serve as testament to how hunting can better a man. On the other hand, he shows nothing but distaste for men who hunt without awareness of, or deference to, their natural surroundings. In Facing the Hunter, these hunters are almost always tourists who come to the wilderness to kill for sport. They are an extension of the urban elite: entitled and completely ignorant of the principles that have guided Richards, his family, and his friends through decades of hunting—respect, integrity, and a deep understanding of the land. Ultimately, these are the virtues that Richards seeks to highlight, and he does so with some success. While his sentimental view of hunting—and condescending view of all those who disagree with it—likely won’t win over any staunch opponents, his book does demonstrate that hunting is about having a relationship with the non-human world, not dominance over it.

Toby Menard, the central character in Todd Babiak’s novel Toby: A Man, could easily be the Chardonnay-sipping man in Richards’ anecdote. Toby is a cultured and emotionally stunted Montrealer who has devoted his life to teaching men about fashion, wine, and etiquette. He would be aghast at Richards’ brash opinions, and would likely pass out if he was forced to gut his dinner. Toby lives the perfect urban existence, hosting his own TV show by day and drinking and dining with his glamorous girlfriend by night. However, his life begins to unravel when his father attempts suicide, and within a few short weeks, Toby finds himself disgraced, fired, abandoned by his girlfriend, and thrust into accidental fatherhood. Destitute and depressed, he takes his young charge and moves into his parents’ home in the suburbs. Slowly but surely, through experiences with fatherhood, family, and friends, Toby begins to realize what is really important in life. This process of maturation is clichéd and predictable at best; the story of a selfish but successful man who falls from grace only to discover what he has been missing is an old one, and there are few surprises in store for readers. However, Babiak’s writing is witty and smart, and he manages to inject both humour and heart into situations that could easily be read as trite. Toby’s memories of his ailing father singing “You Are My Sunshine” to put him to sleep as a child are moving, and it is hard not to chuckle when Mr. Dempsky advises that Toby tell potential employers he is American because, “[n]o one cares where you came from. You might win a literary award in Toronto for mooning over your origins, but you won’t get laid and you won’t get paid. Not in a real country.” It is these moments of connection and humour that make Toby: A Man worthwhile. While the novel does very little that is new, it does inject life into an old story, and it offers an enjoyable portrayal of masculine identity in-process.

Both Richards and Babiak construct dichotomies between “proper” and “improper” masculinities; in Facing the Hunter, true men are those who take the time to form a relationship with the land, and in Toby: A Man, they are those who have moved beyond the trappings of commercialism to embrace authentic familial relationships. Making It Like a Man: Canadian Masculinities in Practice, a collection of essays edited by Christine Ramsay, seeks to address and complicate these forms of masculinity. The collection, which endeavours to “offer the international field of masculinity studies . . . the most recent research on the cultural, geographical, and historical specificity of Canadian masculinities in practice,” investigates Canadian masculinities across disciplines, spaces, and time periods. Essays explore everything from national settlement propaganda in the late 1800s to Indigenous rap in contemporary Regina, and the authors make use of a wide array of analytical and theoretical approaches. It can be hard to make connections between all of these different strains, but ultimately the collection does its job: it proves that Canadian masculinities are varied and contextual, and it makes strong connections between gender and Canada’s social, political, and economic histories. While Making It Like a Man leaves room for the strains of masculinity seen in Richards’ and Babiak’s books, it also suggests that we need to move past the binaries (urban/rural, white collar/blue collar, bachelor/family man) that govern them in order to engage more fully with the complexity of male identity in Canada.

This review “Reading Masculinity” originally appeared in Canadian Literature 216 (Spring 2013): 143-45.

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