5 Contemporary Books
In her Urban Beardsman profile, “A Woman’s Perspective on the Urban Beardsman,” Lindsey Reinders writes, “Our whole team is passionate about the traits that make up an Urban Beardsman. In fact, the beard is the least important part. It’s just a handy-dandy indicator of what’s behind it and that’s where the important stuff is.” The Urban Beardsman team knows that though your beard is a strong symbol of your character and independent spirit, it is only that: a symbol. It is your character itself (and its growth) that is paramount—what makes you uniquely “you.” The growth and sculpting of a strong and unique character requires experience, learning, emotional depth, and reflection. There may be–and are–alternative routes to these traits, but many of them can be developed through reading great books. So, with that in mind, and in the spirit of Lindsey’s sentiments, we offer you 5 contemporary books, written in the 21st century, every beardsman should read. Though the characters of these works are bearded, there is a complexity and value behind the exterior.
1. The Road by Cormac McCarthy
“He carried a shotgun upside down over his shoulder on a braided leather lanyard and he wore a nylon bandolier filled with shells for the gun. A veteran of old skirmishes, bearded, scarred across his cheek and the bone stoven and the one eye wandering.”
If (when) the apocalypse happens, shaving will most likely become a less common ritual; a well sharpened blade would find other uses. Dystopian/post-apocalyptic novels depicting this kind of fallen world are not in short supply in the modern literary landscape, and in large part we have Cormac McCarthy’s Pulitzer Prize winner The Road to thank. Though the backdrop of this narrative is a cataclysm-induced gray and ashen landscape, the story focuses on one man and his young son rather than the how or why of the world’s end. “Each the other’s world entire,” father and son walk “the road,” shuffling south to the coast and scraping at survival as they encounter and desperately avoid the savagery of roving gangs and “blood cults.” The man (as he is called) is driven by a simple but heavy thing: a deep love of—and fear for—his son. Written in McCarthy’s spare, poetic, and masculine prose, The Road is a darkly beautiful and heartbreaking story of how and, more importantly, why our humanity survives when our world becomes impossibly adversarial.
2. The Painter by Peter Heller
“You look like Hemingway, anybody ever tell you that? Really. The eyes, the beard.”
Jim Stegner: painter, fly-fisherman, Hemingway look-alike, bearded, murderer. Jim, the protagonist and voice of Peter Heller’s novel The Painter, is a wildly successful artist, but he lives a simple and rugged life, preferring the solitude of the easel and brush or the river and fly-rod over the glare and crowding of the elitist gallery scene. Jim, though not a predator, is also a murderer on the run who cannot stop painting. To reveal anything more about the circumstances surrounding this “murder” would border on spoiler-ism, but I can tell you that Jim is a beautiful character—a reflection on the sustaining power of art and creativity, on grief, regret, and justice. Heller’s style (Jim’s voice) possesses a clear and forceful lyricism that borders on poetry at times. This is the kind of writing and story that elicits introspection and inspires the desire to create—what all art aspires to be and the greatest art accomplishes.
3. The Good Lord Bird by James McBride
McBride’s historical fiction The Good Lord Bird, a 2013 National Book Award winner, tells the story of Henry Shackleford, a fictional slave boy in 1856 Kansas. Henry, as a child, is “liberated” by John Brown, one of the era’s most controversial, extremist (and bearded) abolitionists. One of the great strengths of this novel is its humor, much of which arises from John Brown’s mistaking Henry for a girl when they first meet. Henry (or “Onion” as Brown calls him) is just a young boy at the time, but for his own protection and safety Onion doesn’t correct Brown and sustains the ruse for years into his own adulthood. In addition, the narrative is told from Henry’s perspective in his own voice, so the language is rich in dialect and colloquialisms, which makes the book an absolute joy to read.
“His [John Brown’s] beard was now fully white and ragged, and so long it growed down to his chest and could’a doubled for a hawk’s nest.”
Besides its humor, The Good Lord Bird is also a sharp reflection on the moral complexities of the antebellum period and the characters involved. Though the real-life John Brown sought to bring about the end of slavery, his methods, as McBride portrays them, are brutally and mercilessly violent, arising out of a religious extremism and unsettled mind. Significant characters and heroes of this period are often romanticized, and McBride asks us, through the genius satire of The Good Lord Bird, to see them as complicated and confounding, both great and flawed, simultaneously impressive and disappointing—simply put: human.
4. Serena by Ron Rash
It’s an iconic image: the flannel-wearing, bearded lumberjack. I can’t wear a flannel without being compared to one (not a complaint). Ron Rash’s novel Serena takes us into the mountains of western North Carolina and eastern Tennessee. The time is 1929, the Great Depression is getting underway, The Smoky Mountain National Park is just an idea and good cause, and the lumber of those mountains is falling to the saw and axe. This novel is the story of its title character Serena and her marriage to George Pemberton, the owner of a vast logging company throughout the southern Appalachians of that region. Serena is intelligent, strong, resilient, beautiful, merciless, and frightening. She will—and does—do anything to protect and increase her empire.
“Among the gathered loggers was a thick-bearded cutting crew foreman named Bilded. He hocked loudly and spit a gob of yellow phlegm on the ground. At six-two and over two hundred pounds, Bilded was one of the few men in camp big as Pemberton.”
Serena and her character are engaging (her simultaneous fall into madness and rise to power), but some of my favorite moments are those when Rash turns our attention to the working-class men and women, especially the loggers who, though secondary characters, are vivid and well developed. These men, mostly natives to the mountains, face the physical and moral conflict of fighting the landscape they love, often giving their lives in horrific logging accidents for the sake of work when no other work is to be had. Juxtaposed to the mythical persona of Serena, these loggers become real to the reader in a way Serena does not. Through their humor, superstitions, vanity, pride, humility, fear, strength, and bravery, Ron Rash demonstrates that there is more to these lumberjacks than their flannel and beards.
5. The Gigantic Beard that was Evil by Stephen Collins
“The beard was just too fast. Too strong. Too profuse.”
Stephen Collins’ graphic novel The Gigantic Beard that was Evil, published in October of 2014, is the story of, well, a beard—an “evil” beard (or not so evil). Dave, the story’s protagonist, has no beard, and then he does—a full, overwhelming, life-altering, culture-changing beard. Collins’ work is a story that asks us to reflect on our (and society’s) fear of the unknown, the imperfection of perfection, and the embracing of change. Collins also accomplishes this through whimsical, dark, beautiful grayscale illustrations reminiscent of Tim Burton but uniquely his own. The Gigantic Beard that was Evil is the tale of how a beard changes the world; though the only graphic novel on this list, it deserves its place and a beardsman’s attention.
If you don’t see something on this list that you think belongs, be sure to tell us about it in the comments. Until next time, beard on and read on.
About the Author
Raised on a riverbank in the mountains of North Carolina, Benjamin Cutler is a teacher, reader, writer, hiker, whitewater raft guide, fly-fisherman, husband, and father. He also enjoys subjecting his children and students to his amateur harmonica riffs. You can read more of his work at Benjamincutlerpoet.com, and feel free to connect on Twitter: @Bookish_Bum.