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David McConnell’s 'American Honor Killings: Desire and Rage Among Men': Book Review

BY GARTH GREENWELL

AmericanHonorKillings-210In this unnervingly beautiful new book, David McConnell investigates six murders of gay men over the last two decades. McConnell’s focus is on the perpetrators of these crimes—men he interviews and corresponds with and locks eyes with at their trials—and one of the most disturbing and profound aspects of his account is the fact that of desire and rage, the two terms of his subtitle, desire is by far the more resonant. However twisted or thwarted, desire is everywhere in this book—in the victims, who sometimes long for their attackers; in the murderers, some of them gay, all of them longing for an ideal they feel is under threat; and in the author himself, who hovers somewhere between perpetrator and victim, an ambiguity he makes fascinating use of in the book. 

The most gripping of these stories concerns Darrell Madden, who in Oklahoma City in 2007 murdered the 62-year-old Steven Domer (See Towleroad's coverage HERE). With a fellow white nationalist, Bradley Qualls—a partner in the crime whom Madden, in a little drama of dominance, would also kill—Madden posed as a hustler to lure his victim. As he does often in this book, McConnell takes us into the scene, putting us closer to the action than we might like. “Gazes snagged on them, slid down their bodies, and were nervously yanked loose,” he writes, cannily putting us in both perspectives at once--that of the two men waiting for their prey, but also of the men driving past them, most of them much older, most of them solitary, most of them on their own sort of hunt.

McConnell has written two novels, and it’s out of a novelist’s respect for the twists and textures of individual lives that he refuses familiar explanations for the violence he describes. He rejects from the start the idea of “gay panic,” but he also questions the category of “hate crimes,” proposing instead that we call these acts “honor killings.”

These murders aren’t about individual hatred, McConnell argues, and they’re finally less about attacking a despised group than defending the honor of an ideal of what manhood means: “These killers….saw, or needed to see, themselves as believers, soldiers, avengers, purifiers, as exemplars of manhood.” This may be a question of emphasis—surely a preoccupation with honor entails hating whatever brings dishonor—but McConnell is convincing in his insistence that each of these killers is “a far more convoluted being than our culture...wants to allow.”

MaddenThis is certainly the case with Darrell Madden, whose life emerges as equal parts tragedy and farce. McConnell spent years meeting and corresponding with Madden, and he gives us his history in pieces, moving repeatedly from the scene of murder to the life that led to it. We learn that Madden had a brief career as a porn actor, and that what led him to white nationalism was his own desperate attraction to skinheads.

Madden speaks to McConnell about these things with an openness suggesting trust and fondness, feelings that are to a significant degree reciprocated. McConnell acknowledges Madden’s charm and attractiveness—“he was, almost reflexively, an expert seducer”—and the scenes between them read like an uncensored version of the relationship between Perry Smith and Truman Capote in In Cold Blood. Hidden desire and fascination pulse in the paragraphs of Capote’s classic book; in American Honor Killings, that desire is laid bare.

David_McConnell_new-210And so the most interesting character in these pages is finally McConnell himself, and the book’s key investigations are of his own motives and desires. He writes of “the joy of violence,” of “a wild physical pleasure of release,” of “brute and happy manliness”; he claims, speaking of skinhead culture, that “the solidarity the group engenders is, basically, love.” It’s clear that McConnell understands and to some extent shares the longing for pure manhood and ideal brotherhood that sets the men he studies on their paths. “What am I,” he writes, worrying at “the nagging question of whether I’m more Steve or more Darrell”—more victim or perpetrator of these crimes.

That’s a question many men might ask, and what’s most exciting about American Honor Killings is the way its nuance and detail sharpen the point of its cultural critique. McConnell reads individual acts of violence against gay men as signs of stress or fracture in an ideal masculinity we collectively adore. “The constant irony,” McConnell writes in a telling passage about Madden, “was that daily life among the skinheads in prison was strikingly similar to scenes from the gay porn movies Darrell had appeared in not long before.” The internet is full of porn for gay men in which gay men are brutalized, often by men who match Madden’s skinhead ideal of manhood.  This lends credence to the most unsettling conclusion of this excellent book: that the desire in McConnell’s title is our own.

Garth Greenwell is the author of Mitko, which won the 2010 Miami University Press Novella Prize and was a finalist for the Edmund White Debut Fiction Award and a Lambda Award. Beginning this fall, he will be an Arts Fellow at the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop.

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Comments

  1. Oh, the irony. After all the bull written by the bigots today on this blog now here's this book.

    BEWARE THE BLACK MENACE, bring a skin head home you tonight.

    Please do.

    Posted by: Derrick from Philly | May 21, 2013 1:02:19 PM


  2. My wife bought this for me.

    Posted by: David Hearne | May 21, 2013 1:06:23 PM


  3. @ DAVID,

    you beat me to it. But I'm afraid the skin heads don't stand a chance. These bigots speaking out to day on this blog only want to be bashed and killed by Black men.


    Give the skin head a chance, Rick.

    Posted by: Derrick from Philly | May 21, 2013 1:10:14 PM


  4. Everything that is seedy, low, degraded and impure in a man is despised by the macho ideal. Gay men in particular can be the unjust focus of such hatred. Yet we all have minds that can choose to think differently refusing to indulge negative impulses. This author needs to change his perspective and get over himself.

    Posted by: UFFDA | May 21, 2013 1:14:34 PM


  5. UFFDA needs to get over himself.

    Posted by: Not that Rob | May 21, 2013 1:18:21 PM


  6. The book sounds interesting and disturbing, especially to the degree to which he identifies with the killers. It's nearly impossible for me to look at that photo of Madden, with his tattoos instead of eyebrows, and seeing past that to think of him as charming or seductive. I'll probably read it at some point, just because I'm interested in dark psychology.

    It's not really new thinking that rabid homophobes, even killers of gay men, are really hating and killing something in themselves as much as they are their victims. If you're comfortable with your own sexuality and masculinity (or lack thereof), why would anyone elses concern you?

    (We get a daily dose of this from certain commenters who seem rather hysterical about femininity in men or the "taint" of women on gay male culture.)

    There seems to always be more than a bit of homoeroticism in any "hyper-masculine" group, from male hero worship of certain athletes, the tight clothing of skinheads, or wrestlers using anti-gay slurs at the same time they parade their oiled and muscled bodies in skimpy shorts in front of mostly male audiences.

    Still, it sounds as if McConnell may have something new or at least interesting to say about it.

    Posted by: Caliban | May 21, 2013 1:36:48 PM


  7. Anything to make a buck.

    Posted by: AR | May 21, 2013 1:44:51 PM


  8. NOTE: Comments on an earlier post have been closed and hidden due to severe trolling. I apologizes to our readers for the cesspool the comments section has become and promise we will work to find a solution. The site right now is built on a very old template, which makes moderating individual comments very difficult give the size of the site and the number of them coming in. We count on readers to flag items for us.

    Commenters who race-bait and/or use multiple identities in order to start or invigorate comment wars (we know who you are) run the risk of being BANNED. Please refrain also from goading trolls into commenting. Those comments may also get deleted.

    Sorry for having to even say this. Please try to carry on in a civilized way with constructive commentary and respect for others. Thank you.

    Posted by: Andy Towle | May 21, 2013 1:52:30 PM


  9. Oh, and I forgot to add, I'm glad to see a book review on this site and hope to see more of them in the future, either by Garth Greenwell or others. In my experience gay men are more likely than average to be readers and features about books are sorely missing at most gay sites.

    Posted by: Caliban | May 21, 2013 1:53:50 PM


  10. Women write love letters to serial killers.

    Posted by: David Hearne | May 21, 2013 1:59:50 PM


  11. Thank this book for confirming that homophobia and racism are direct consequences of patriarchy and the pathetic need of belonging / feeling superior of men who are at the lowest of the lowest, and whose only claim to superiority is their penis and their white skin (none of which they've had to do anything to gain).

    This violence is just distress and the hatred of anyone who they feel unsettles the place of the penis/whiteskin supremacy - the only thing their feel prevents them from being lower than dogs.

    Both pathetic and sad. And yet, we're the ones dying, so...

    Posted by: Jols | May 21, 2013 2:02:05 PM


  12. "McConnell reads individual acts of violence against gay men as signs of stress or fracture in an ideal masculinity we collectively adore. “The constant irony,” McConnell writes in a telling passage about Madden, “was that daily life among the skinheads in prison was strikingly similar to scenes from the gay porn movies Darrell had appeared in not long before.” The internet is full of porn for gay men in which gay men are brutalized, often by men who match Madden’s skinhead ideal of manhood. This lends credence to the most unsettling conclusion of this excellent book: that the desire in McConnell’s title is our own."

    Yep. The same gay men who promote the culture of effeminacy lust after the most macho of men and desire to be raped and humiliated by them.

    In doing so, they are seeking desperately after their own lost masculinity, which the culture of effeminacy has deprived them of, having caused them to internalize the larger societal idea that homosexuality and masculinity are incompatible.

    It is this contradiction that defines much of gay male life and culture......its dysfunctionm and the self-destructive behavior of so many of its adherents.

    And it will only change when gay men decide en masse to reclaim their masculinity and re-define their own sexuality as a form of shared masculine experience rather than as a form of femininity and pseudo-womanhood.

    Posted by: Rick | May 21, 2013 2:19:14 PM


  13. One of the less desirable side effects of testosterone.

    Posted by: Jack M | May 21, 2013 2:21:22 PM


  14. And relatedly, the violence of many "straight" men towards gay men IS out of anger that they have destroyed the noble nature of male-male love by tainting it with the pseudo-womanliness and cowardliness that the culture of effeminacy consists of.

    So the solution for these "straight" men is the same as it is for gay men--a reformed male culture in which men's primary social, emotional, and sexual attachment is to each other than to women.

    Posted by: Rick | May 21, 2013 2:22:27 PM


  15. The violence of straight men against gay men comes from the perception that we have given up our masculinity regardless of where we fall on the scale of masculinity. In other words, it is based in misogyny. Much like Rick's cockamamie opinions. We shouldn't have to change who we are in order to avoid violence.

    Posted by: ChristopherM | May 21, 2013 2:27:59 PM


  16. "The violence of straight men against gay men comes from the perception that we have given up our masculinity regardless of where we fall on the scale of masculinity. In other words, it is based in misogyny"

    No, ChristopherM, misogyny is defined as a hatred of women. You are NOT a woman and therefore violence directed against you or others like you is not misogyny.

    None of these guys would attack a woman for engaging in the behavior that you engage in--because she is a woman and is only behaving the way women naturally behave.

    They attack you because you have consciously rejected your own gender out of contempt for it to such an extent that you are willing to artificially alter your behavior so as to try and mimic members of the opposite sex, to which you do not belong.

    You attempt to make a mockery out of maleness and masculinity and all the values associated with it and are therefore an aggressor who is being reacted to, not an innocent victim.

    Posted by: Rick | May 21, 2013 2:37:37 PM


  17. Oh I see Rick, if a gay man is bashed who happens to be what you would consider femme, he had it coming. Wow, I can't even imagine the self-loathing that is going on inside your head. You should seriously seek some therapy.

    Posted by: ChristopherM | May 21, 2013 2:47:17 PM


  18. Anti-gay prejudice, with its insidious links to misogyny and transphobia, turn not only deeply insecure straight men into neanderthalian bigots, but it inspires far too many insecure homosexual men to be exactly the same.

    Because of this, it's with great pride and joy that I see my straight male friends and my father standing strong in solidarity with the LGBT community. Joined by people like NHL mainstay Brian Burke and his son, Patrick. They march with us in the Pride Parade. Why? Because that's what real men do - they stand strong with those who are discriminated against, and who are targeted by bigots.

    Gay men and women, no matter "how gay" some right-leaning prejudiced bigot may deem them to be, will have an ally and a support from those men in my life. Transpeople - you will find allies and supporters who love you.

    Because in this day and age, it's only the insecure cowards in society that lash out at others simply for being Different.

    To the men and women who refuse to side with the bigoted bullies, you're the real heroes, and you're changing the world for the better.

    Posted by: LittleKiwi | May 21, 2013 2:51:59 PM


  19. ChristopherM - that is not even close to what Rick said. Clear you head out and unchip your shoulder before you comment.

    Posted by: UFFDA | May 21, 2013 2:52:21 PM


  20. "Wow, I can't even imagine the self-loathing that is going on inside your head."

    No self-loathing, whatsoever. Both my sexuality and my masculinity are intact and I see them as totally compatible.

    It is effeminate men who are self-loathing and who suffer from severe lack of self-esteem (which is why they let themselves get beat up)....their effeminacy is, itself, a result of the self-loathing that comes from having internalized the idea that their sexuality is incompatible with masculinity...and no man who has surrendered his masculinity can ever feel any pride or self-worth, regardless of his sexual orientation......precisely why effeminate behavior is almost always accompanied by all kinds of self-destructive behavior, whether suicide, drug abuse, alcohol abuse, acquisition of STDs, etc.

    Posted by: Rick | May 21, 2013 2:54:52 PM


  21. http://littlekiwilovesbauhaus.blogspot.ca/2009/09/in-defense-of-my-glorious-femme.html

    worth reading ;-)

    *elegant curtsy*

    the strength and resilience it takes to live each day presenting something that a still-bigoted culture takes hateful issue with is indeed the mark of a strong individual.

    Posted by: LittleKiwi | May 21, 2013 2:57:17 PM


  22. Really UFFDA? Rick said, "You attempt to make a mockery out of maleness and masculinity and all the values associated with it and are therefore an aggressor who is being reacted to, not an innocent victim." That sure sounds like saying the victim has it coming if they are a sissy. I suppose racists and sexists stick together.

    Posted by: ChristopherM | May 21, 2013 2:58:10 PM


  23. "It is effeminate men who are self-loathing and who suffer from severe lack of self-esteem (which is why they let themselves get beat up)"

    Thanks for proving my point Rick. In your twisted world, sissy boys have it coming. Pitiful.

    Posted by: ChristopherM | May 21, 2013 3:01:32 PM


  24. @Andy - Thank you! The site desperately needs an update in the comments section. It is a major weakness and embarrassment - the main reason I don't recommend the site to others. And several commenters desperately need to be banned.

    Posted by: melvin | May 21, 2013 3:03:45 PM


  25. ChristpherM, don'tcha love the reality that's not those apparently-"effeminate" men that are closet cases?

    exactly. they have the confidence and spines to be Out.

    that's why Closeted men hate them.

    Posted by: LittleKiwi | May 21, 2013 3:04:53 PM


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