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The Sublime Transgression of an Appalachian Hero
Matthew McConaughey's memoir Greenlights as progeny of Albion's Seed
You should read Matthew McConaughey's memoir Greenlights.
Better yet, you should listen to it. McConaughey reads it to you himself in his Texan honey-drawl.
If you expect some Opera Winfrey kitsch, you’re mistaken. The memoir is shocking in its freshness. It reads like an alien culture, or one from a distant past, as if reading about a Comanche chief recounting tales of a glorious youth taking scalps and wives, or of Cortés burning his ships and embarking on the most audacious venture known to history.
But there is no blood, or at least not much. And our hero is a golden boy of sorts, and he’s no warrior — he’s an actor.
The strangeness of the story comes from its transgression. It inverts all our cultural expectations. Here is a man in 2020 writing about the knife-fight-cum-romp of his parents, the fist fight between father and son for honour and domination, a literal pissing contest, theft as virtue and getting caught as sin, endless wanking in a bathtub in regional Australia and the glamorous never-showering-alone lifestyle of a global superstar. There is no apologia. There is a wink to every line, a grin in every pause. But nor is this a gonzo romp or a Tucker Max adolescent fantasy. McConaughey is a real man with real aspirations. His memoir reads like he’s telling you — just you — a rollicking story at a bar, pausing to reflect seriously on things that are serious: on meeting the love of his life, the complexity of marriage, the ineffable joy of fatherhood.1
In a world where Antonio García Martínez loses his job at Apple for comments in his book (which is great, and which I interviewed him on), tightening sexual norms in a post-Me Too world, and the growing status associated with claiming victimhood, it’s kind of wild that this book exists at all. That it does is deeply optimistic. It implies a whole world that lives another way, outside of dominant New England Puritan bubbles, unafraid to follow different mores. Maybe the US really is much more culturally pluralistic than implied by Twitter.
The reason McConaughey reads like he’s from an alien culture is because he is. Greenlights is the perfect pairing to David Hackett Fischer’s Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America as a Platonic example of the Appalachian hero. Where Hillbilly Elegy is forceful, resentful and pessimistic, Greenlights is unapologetic, glorious, optimistic. Two opposite perspectives on an Appalachian culture laced with physical violence and substance abuse.
Take the two fight scenes I extract below. I listened to McConaughey narrate this in his honeyed Texan drip. Read cold this might sound, in your mind, like some grim backstory to a life lived in trauma, or a flashback to Tony Soprano’s abusive youth. Yet McConaughey may as well be narrating dogs at the track, or matadors jousting with their beasts, his voice brimming with excitement and ultimately in triumph.
This is a world far from the elite New England Puritan culture that dominates so much US cultural discourse. This is also not the Judaized North-East of Philip Roth or Woody Allen, the lordly pretentions of Virginians, the leather jowls of lonesome Oregon mountaineers, nor the Brotherly Love of Pennsylvania’s Quakers. This is an altogether different American man: the Appalachian Scot-Irishman. What Fischer called The Borderers, the refuse of centuries of brutal clan warfare and poverty on the borders between Scotland and England that washed up in America’s backwater country.
If the blood-soaked lands of Cormac McCarthy are where the Scot-Irish do battle in hell, Greenlights is where the Scot-Irish ascend the throne of heaven. Here they are free to wrestle and thieve for their clan, smash bottles against barns and romp in the sun. Here they’re Texan royalty: golf champs, Hollywood actors who fight and f**k as the Good Lord intended.
It’s not the “Mc” in McConaughey that’s the tell — it takes more than a Scot-Irish prefix to be a Borderer. It’s the transgressive cultural milieu in which his stories live. Fischer details Borderer styles across language, character, architecture and more. Let’s take the “rough and tumble” as an example:
The border sport of bragging and fighting was also introduced to the American backcountry, where it came to be called “rough and tumble.” Here again it was a savage combat between two or more males (occasionally females), which sometimes left the contestants permanently blinded or maimed. A graphic description of “rough and tumble” came from the Irish traveler Thomas Ashe, who described a fight between a West Virginian and a Kentuckian. A crowd gathered and arranged itself into an impromptu ring. The contestants were asked if they wished to “fight fair” or “rough and tumble.” When they chose “rough and tumble,” a roar of approval rose from the multitude. The two men entered the ring, and a few ordinary blows were exchanged in a tentative manner. Then suddenly the Virginian “contracted his whole form, drew his arms to his face,” and “pitched himself into the bosom of his opponent,” sinking his sharpened fingernails into the Kentuckian’s head. “The Virginian,” we are told, “never lost his hold … fixing his claws in his hair and his thumbs on his eyes, [he] gave them a start from the sockets. The sufferer roared aloud, but uttered no complaint.” Even after the eyes were gouged out, the struggle continued. The Virginian fastened his teeth on the Kentuckian’s nose and bit it in two pieces. Then he tore off the Kentuckian’s ears. At last, the “Kentuckian, deprived of eyes, ears and nose, gave in.” The victor, himself maimed and bleeding, was “chaired round the grounds,” to the cheers of the crowd…
Now let’s look at one of the opening stories of McConaughey’s memoir, a tale of parental love:
Dad had just gotten home from work. Greasy blue button-down with “Jim” on the left chest patch already thrown in the washer, he sat at the head of the table in his sleeveless undershirt. He was hungry. My brothers and I had eaten already and Mom pulled his reheated plate from the oven and shoved it in front of him.
“More potatoes, honey,” he said as he dug in.
My dad was a big man. Six foot four, 265 pounds, his “fightin weight,” he’d say, “Any lighter I catch a cold.” At forty-four years old, those 265 pounds were hanging in places that, at this Wednesday evening dinner, my mom didn’t fancy.
“Sure you want more potatoes, FAT MAN?” she barked.
I was crouching behind the couch in the living room, starting to get nervous.
But Dad, head down, quietly continued to eat.
“Look at ya, that fat belly of yours. Sure, eat up, FAT MAN,” she yapped as she scraped overwhelming amounts of mashed potatoes onto his plate.
That was it. BOOM! Dad flipped the dining table into the ceiling, got up, and began to stalk Mom. “Goddamnit, Katy, I work my ass off all day, I come home, I just want to eat a hot meal in peace.”
It was on. My brothers knew the deal, I knew the deal. Mom knew the deal as she ran to the wall-mounted telephone on the other side of the kitchen to call 911.
“You can’t leave well enough alone, can ya, Katy?” my dad grumbled through gritted teeth, his forefinger raised at her as he closed in across the kitchen floor.
As he closed in, Mom grabbed the handheld end of the phone off the wall mount and raked it across his brow.
Dad’s nose was broken, blood was everywhere.
Mom ran to a cabinet and pulled out a twelve-inch chef’s knife, then squared off at him. “C’mon, FAT MAN! I’ll cut you from your nuts to your gulliver!”
They circled each other in the middle of the kitchen, Mom waving the twelve-inch blade, Dad with his bloody broken nose and snarling incisors. He grabbed a half-full fourteen-ounce bottle of Heinz ketchup off the counter, unscrewed the cap, and brandished it like her blade.
“C’mon, FAT MAN!” Mom dared him again. “I’ll cut you WIIIIDE open!”
Assuming the stance of a mocking matador, Dad began to fling ketchup from the open bottle across Mom’s face and body. “Touché,” he said, as he pranced right to left.
The more he flipped ketchup on her and dodged her slashing chef’s knife, the more frustrated Mom got.
“Touché again!” Dad teased as he splattered a new red stripe across her while eluding another attack.
Around and around they went, until finally, Mom’s frustration turned to fatigue. Now covered in ketchup, she dropped the knife on the floor, stood straight, and began to wipe her tears and catch her breath.
Dad dropped the bottle of Heinz, relaxed out of his matador pose, and wiped the blood dripping from his nose with his forearm.
Still facing off, weapons down, they stared at each other for a moment, Mom thumbing the ketchup from her wet eyes, Dad just standing there letting the blood drip from his nose down his chest. Seconds later, they moved toward each other and met in an animal embrace. They dropped to their knees, then to the bloody, ketchup-covered linoleum kitchen floor…and made love. A red light turned green.
This is how my parents communicated.
This is why Mom handed Dad an invite to their own wedding and said, “You got twenty-four hours to decide, lemme know.”
This is why my mom and dad were married three times and divorced twice—to each other.
This is why my dad broke Mom’s middle finger to get it out of his face four separate times.
This is how my mom and dad loved each other.
Compare that with the grimmer Marina Abramović talking about her parents in her (wonderful) memoir:
My parents’ marriage was like a war — I never saw them hug or kiss or express any affection toward each other. Maybe it was just an old habit from partisan days, but they both slept with loaded pistols on their bedside tables! I remember once, during a rare period when they were speaking to each other, my father came home for lunch and my mother said, “Do you want soup?” And when he said yes, she came up behind him and dumped the hot soup on his head. He screamed, pushed the table away, broke every dish in the room, and walked out.
For McConaughey that was just how his parents expressed their love. To question it would be as bizarre as questioning the ferocity of a storm or a flood. For Abramović her parents’ conflict resembled the bleakness of war.
McConaughey on ass whupping:
I got my first ass whupping for answering to “Matt” on the kindergarten playground (“You weren’t named after a doormat!” Mom screamed), my second for saying “I hate you” to my brother, my third for saying “I can’t,” and my fourth for telling a lie about a stolen pizza.
McConaughey on family values:
I come from a family of disciplinarians where you better follow the rules, until you’re man enough to break em… I come from a family that might penalize you for breaking the rules, but definitely punished you for getting caught.
McConaughey on father-son relations:
We had an old wooden barn in the back of our house by the dirt alleyway where Dad kept an unloaded eighteen-wheeler from his pipe-hauling days. It was a Saturday night.
“Let’s drink some beer and throw knives in the barn tonight, son,” Dad told Mike.
“Sure, Pop, see you there around sundown.”
Around ten o’clock, and after quite a few beers, Dad finally bellied up, “Let’s go roll some pipe like we used to, son, it’s been a while.”
“Rollin pipe” is when you take an unloaded eighteen-wheeler to someone else’s pipe yard, load their pipe on it, drive away, and steal it. Dad and Mike used to do it on certain Saturday nights back when Dad was hauling.
“Whose pipe you wanna roll, Pop?”
Dad squared off at Mike and said, “Don Knowles.”
“Nah, Dad, I’m not doin that. I just got Don Knowles’s account, you know that.”
“I do know that. I got you that job at Gensco, boy; you wouldn’t have that account if it wasn’t for me. Where’s your loyalty lie, son? With your old man or Don fuckin Knowles?!”
“Now, Dad, you know that ain’t fair.”
“What ain’t fair, boy?! You too good now to roll pipe with your old man like we used to? Huh? You too big-time now, boy?!”
“Now, Dad, easy…”
Dad took off his shirt. “No, let’s see how big-time you are now, boy. You think you’re man enough not to listen to your old man? You gonna have to whup him to prove it.”
“Now, Dad, I don’t wanna—”
Whop! Dad walloped an open-palmed right hand across Mike’s face. Mike stumbled a step back, then straightened up and started rolling up his sleeves.
“So this is how it’s gonna be?” Mike said.
“Yep, this is how it’s gonna be, c’mon, boy.”
Dad was six four, 265 pounds. Mike was five ten, 180.
Dad, now crouched, stepped in with a right hook across Mike’s jaw. Mike went down. Dad stalked toward him.
On the ground, gathering himself, Mike saw a five-foot 2 x 4 lying on the ground next to him.
Just as Dad came in for another blow, Mike grabbed that 2 x 4 and baseball-bat swung it across the right side of Dad’s head.
Dad stumbled back, sincerely dazed but still on his feet.
“Now stop it, Dad! I don’t wanna fight you and I ain’t stealin Don Knowles’s pipe tonight!”
Dad, bleeding from his ears, turned and leveled Mike with another right hook.
“Like hell you’re not, boy,” he said as he prowled in on his son on the ground.
With the 2 x 4 out of distance and Dad bearing down on him again, Mike grabbed a hand full of sandy gravel from the ground and slung it across Dad’s face, blinding him.
Dad stumbled back, struggling to get his bearings.
“That’s enough, Pop! It’s over!
But it wasn’t. Unable to see, Dad lunged toward Mike’s voice. Mike easily sidestepped him.
“That’s enough, Dad!”
Dad, now a blind groveling bear with bleeding ears, came at Mike again.
“Where are you, boy? Where’s my son who won’t roll Don Knowles’s pipe with his old man?”
Mike picked up the five-foot 2 x 4 and held it at the ready.
“Dad, I’m tellin ya, it’s over. If you come at me again, I’m gonna knock you out with this 2 x 4.” Dad heard him clearly, steadied himself, then said, “Give it your best shot, boy,” as he blitzed Mike.
Whh-ooo-pp! The 2 x 4 went across Dad’s head.
Out cold, Dad lay in a heap on the ground.
“Damnit, Dad?!” Mike said in shock, wondering if he’d killed him.
Mike, crying now, knelt down over Dad and yelled, “Damnit, Dad! I told you not to come at me again!”
Dad lay there, unmoving.
For four and a half minutes Mike knelt over his fallen pop, weeping.
“I didn’t wanna do it, Dad, but you made me.”
Dad then came to and slowly got to his feet.
“I’m sorry, Dad!” Mike shouted, “I’m sorry!”
My dad stood straight and wiped the gravel from his eyes. Mike, crying tears of shock and fear, readied himself for the risk of another round. Dad, eyes now clear, focused in on the young man who had just knocked him out cold, his first son.
The fight was over. Tears ran down my dad’s face as well. But these were tears of pride and joy. Dad stepped toward Mike with open arms and took him into a loving bear hug, declaring into Mike’s ear, “That’s my boy, son, that’s my boy.”
From that day on Mike was an equal to Dad and Dad treated him as such. Dad never challenged Mike again, physically, morally, or philosophically. They were best of friends.
You see, rites of passage were a big deal to my dad, and if you were man enough to take him on, then you had to prove it. And Mike just did.
The second son Pat has his moment when his dad made a bet with his drinking buddies that Pat could piss over one of their heads. His dad drove 12 miles to wake Pat and prove it. He did it, and his dad won the bet.
McConaughey on the superstar good life:
Single, healthy, honest, and eligible, I enjoyed the transience of a high-class hotel that promoted mischief: transactions; flings; affairs; renting to rent, not to own…. I took a lot of showers in the daylight hours, rarely alone. I partook.
McConaughey on becoming a father. As a father of three, I chewed over this for a while:
I was as fulfilled in my life as I’d ever been. Married, with three children like my father, I was finding inspiration everywhere, but now in truths, not ideas. Unimpressed with my success, I was involved in it, wanting what I needed and needing what I wanted. The more successful I became, the more sober I got; I liked my company so much I didn’t want to interrupt it.
And maybe my favourite bit, true as the sun is bright, McConaughey on daughters:
The only honeymoon that lasts forever.
McConaughey’s memoir oozes in a forgotten and banished masculinity. It’s a decadent cousin of Hemingway or an Appalachian cousin of Philip Roth. As Erik Hoel writes about here, it’s become basically impossible to publish masculine work as the literary industry is increasingly run by and for women. Of course, most authors are not Matthew McConaughey. Bless his soul.
The power of the audiobook may be partly to blame: like podcasts they trick you into false intimacy with the host. He’s only speaking to you over a beer or a campfire, the medium tricks your monkey brain into thinking.