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Kent Russell: A 'Timid Son' rises

Here are just some of the choice insults Kent Russell's father has lobbed at his writer son:

"What're you working on in your spare time these days? Something other, actual people might be interested in?"

"When did you get so bookish? And when, exactly, did you start taking baths like a lady?"

"You got smarmy, somehow, is my problem. You turned into the intelligentsia all of a sudden. You're ashamed of me. And now you're going to tell the world I'm this socially unacceptable rube."

If Russell Sr.'s criticisms of his only son seem cruel and offensive, his fear of being outed as a non-contender for World's Greatest Dad is far from unfounded. In "I Am Sorry To Think I Have Raised a Timid Son," Kent Russell's debut memoir and essay collection, Dad, as the 71-year-old Vietnam War veteran is identified throughout the book, is presented as a 5-foot-4, Ohio-born Archie Bunker with a hurricane mind and a tornado mouth. He's implacable and impertinent, and he's the runaway star of a book in which Russell also spends time with a man who "self-immunizes" with venom from the world's deadliest snakes; a modern-day Robinson Crusoe on a desert island off the coast of Australia; Amish baseball players; and Juggalos, the anything but timid fans of Detroit horror-rap act Insane Clown Posse.

Russell, raised in Coconut Grove and now living in New York, says despite all the bluster and consternation over his son's chosen career, his father "is the most supportive guy in the world." After all, Kent isn't the only writer in the family. His oldest sister, Karen Russell, is the celebrated author of "Swamplandia," "Sleep Donation" and other works of fiction.

"He knows that of the two of us who try to do this stuff, I'm the one who has to use the family-destroying grist to try to make my mealy substance," Kent Russell says during a recent phone interview. "It's made clear that he thinks I'm a nibs--t, but he's really proud of me."

In "I Am Sorry To Think I Have Raised a Timid Son," Russell joins essays he wrote for the New Republic, Grantland, Harper's and other magazines with an account of a turbulent, 14-day visit to his parents' home in San Francisco. At 29, Russell says he didn't compile these pieces to announce his arrival as a capital "W" writer or to commit "an insane act of hubris and say, 'Yeah, here's my best of. I'm sub-30, and here are my greatest hits, [expletive]!'" Instead, the book is Russell's attempt to reconcile the person he considers himself to be with the person he sees reflected in his father's eyes and hears in his derision. Not liking either image, Russell sets out, he writes, "to unearth + drag into the light the hissing, congenital demons that are bleeding me dry. Yes. I have to stake them right in the heart. I have to, because I won't allow them to sink their teeth into one more Russell."

When this passage is read back to him now, Russell says he is aware that writing about his father "requires a necessary betrayal" and understands the old man's frustration at having no control over his son's portrait of him. "The dude is just so intensely private. He didn't ask for any of this," Russell says, adding, "I don't think that I'm salaciously airing dirty laundry as much as I am trying to make a conceit out of me and him."

While his father repeatedly, and often hysterically, warns his son of the consequences of documenting his every move ("you put this on YouTube, and I swear to God"), Russell says he isn't sure if his father has read the book. "It's not something we've talked about," Russell says. "He'll probably just want to throttle me if we do."

Kent Russell will appear 8 p.m. Tuesday, March 17, at Books and Books, 265 Aragon Ave., in Coral Gables. Admission is free. Call 305-442-4408 or go to BooksAndBooks.com.

jcline@southflorida.com, Twitter.com/jakeflorida

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