White Masculinity on the Verge in Rick Moody's the Ice Storm (1994)

Article excerpt

This article explores the anxieties of White masculinity in Rick Moody's second novel The Ice Storm (1994). Set in a period of national and international unrest, the year 1973, the novel bears witness to the growing vulnerability of White males who live in northeastern White suburbs that appear as precarious bastions of conservatism. Our ambition is to suggest that the crises metaphorically affecting the national body of the United States are about to affect in turn the body of White suburban males. Indeed, it seems that men are constantly on the verge of falling, whether physically or socially. Potential breakdown looms large in this era of social agitation and cultural transformations.

KEYWORDS: WHITE MASCULINITY, SUBURBS, BODY IN CRISIS, RICK MOODY

In her epilogue entitled "Same as it ever was (more or less)," Catherine Jurca suggests that representations of the suburbs are still deeply rooted in a literary tradition that goes back to John Updike and John Cheever. The title of her epilogue laments the fact that nothing new has emerged since the 1960s, for suburbanites have long been plagued by the same torments, i.e. "alienation, anguish, and self-pity" (2001, p. 161). The critic includes Rick Moody in the list of writers who have specialized in the subgenre of suburban writing although Moody has always had some trouble accepting this literary inheritance, especially because of its realistic trend.1 However, it is an undeniable fact that his early novels2 mainly deal with the anxieties of White middle class families who live in suburban towns of northeastern America.

The Ice Storm, Rick Moody's second novel, was published in 1994 but the action is set in 1973, at a time of domestic and international crises. The novel opens with the Cold War, the Vietnam War, the looming Watergate and the oil crisis as a backdrop- a period immediately described as "dark ages" (p. 4). Although the novel is set in the well-named suburb of New Canaan, Connecticut, we are easily led to understand that the apparent domestic felicity is precarious and may soon be shattered. Our goal is not to focus on White suburban families as a whole but isolate its most disabled member, the White male adult and father- in our case, Benjamin Hood, a security analyst approaching his fortieth birthday, whose physical insecurity may be symptomatic of a period of uncertainties. Indeed, throughout the novel, it seems that two crises run parallel: one affecting the political body of the United States, the other affecting the White man's intimate body.

As we will try to articulate these two crises, we here use as a starting point the hypothesis developed by social critic Barbara Ehreinreich who identifies the anguish of the White middle class as a genuine fear of falling, "a fear of inner weakness, of growing soft, of failing to strive, of losing discipline and will. (...) Whether the middle class looks down toward the realm of less, there is the fear, always, of falling" (Ehrenreich, 1989, p. 15).

We argue that the fear of falling not only causes distress to a whole social class but affects most specifically the category of White men. Drawing on Ehreinreich's analysis, Catherine Jurca suggests in her epilogue that a similar anguish is to be found in suburban writing: "The fear of falling, and actual falling, looms large in this literature" (2001, p. 164). Indeed, in The Ice Storm, Moody portrays White men who are on the verge of falling but pretend they are still standing upright while the world around them is collapsing.

When historian Arthur M. Schlesinger published "The Crisis of American Masculinity" in the late 1950s, he asked the following question: "What has happened to the American male?" Schlesinger identifies a growing concern with men's sense of virility that has become mainly observable in American fiction at the turn of the 20th century. According to him, early male characters- he quotes the frontiersmen of James Fenimore Cooper- were not preoccupied with their maleness because they were not aware of acting like males. …