In December, Sir Peter Blake, a world-champion sailor and environmental activist from New Zealand, was shot dead at the age of 53 aboard his yacht at the mouth of the Amazon River. Blake's accomplishments made him a hero to many in the world of sailing and beyond. In 1994, he captured the Jules Verne Trophy for circumnavigating the globe in a mere 75 days; the following year, he won the America's Cup for the first time; in 2000, he repeated that feat; and just before his death Blake had begun looking for ways to protect the world's waterways by following the example of the late Jacques Cousteau. But Blake's murder at the hands of robbers who had boarded his boat has been shrouded in controversy, especially in his native New Zealand.
Questions have been raised about the sobriety of the captain and his crew on the night in question, opening up a box of delicate issues surrounding whether Blake might have avoided such an untimely fate. In particular, some have observed that if the 6-foot-4 Blake had acquiesced to the thieves' demands, he might still be alive today. Instead, Blake charged below deck and grabbed a rifle, opening fire on the would-be pirates; in the ensuing exchange of gunshots, he lost his life.
Setting aside the question of whether Blake and his crew had been drinking -- by most accounts, they had, although nobody seems to be willing to acknowledge that they were drunk -- even some of Blake's admirers retain a lingering sense that as a man among men, the great sailor might have suffered a fatal bout of what is sometimes referred to as testosterone poisoning. "The view that Blake lived and died a hero has been challenged by those who believe Blake and his crew bear a large share of responsibility for escalating the robbery into a murder," writes Peter Nichols in this month's Outside magazine.
In simple terms, Blake responded to the threat of violence with violence -- which, as any student of the Middle East can tell you, exponentially increases the likelihood that someone gets killed. In Blake's case, it happened to be the good guy who lost the fight. But others could argue that, given the laws of the sea and the desperate nature of the crime -- in most international courts, piracy is punishable by death -- Blake did the right thing: sacrificing his life, but ensuring the safety of his crew and his ship. From afar, the only clear lesson to be drawn from the Blake incident is a reminder not to think of life in overly cinematic terms, although even that's tough to keep in mind in this day and age.
For a better perspective on what it means to live in a man's, man's, man's world, turn to Jan Reid's new memoir "The Bullet Meant for Me." A journalist and longtime contributor to the Texas Monthly, Reid had the terrible misfortune of being shot during a trip to Mexico in 1998. Unlike Blake, Reid lived to tell the tale. His insights into the culture of masculinity, in turn, shed some light on what Blake may have been trying to accomplish when he was murdered.
Make no mistake about Reid: His story undoubtedly concerns the ravages of masculine myths and violence, and the twinned themes of recovery and healing, but the author has no interest in wading through a bunch of Iron John-New Age hokum. Reid, who had plenty of time to think about what it means to be a man while recovering from his ordeal, approaches the topic knowingly, nodding to his literary forebears, including Hemingway, while puzzling through the events that led him to a fate nearly parallel to that of Peter Blake.
We Texans (even such Yankee transplants as myself), like our counterparts on the other side of the world, both Kiwis and their even more aggressively masculine Australian neighbors (paging Russell Crowe), have long had the reputation of being a macho breed. One need look no further than the "dead or alive" utterances of President George W. Bush following Sept. 11 to recognize the attitudes that have long caused the rest of America to wonder what kind of Neanderthals live in the Lone Star State. It's a pumped-up, self-propagating attitude that most Texans, even some women, often revel in; Annie Leibovitz's famed photograph of Gov. Ann Richards, a friend of Reid's, cradling her shotgun while standing in a field, tells you everything you need to know about persistence of the cowboy myth 'round these parts. Such political posturing notwithstanding, Reid manages to defend the culture of heroism without falling into the "horseshit," as he refers to it, of American -- specifically Texas -- machismo.
With a surprisingly deft hand, he provides us with a nuanced view of life that serves as a dramatic counterpoint to that of the squinty sheriff in chief. A fan of boxing and friend of the ranked super featherweight fighter Jesus Chavez, Reid traveled to notoriously crime-ridden Mexico City to see Chavez fight in the spring of 1998. Chavez, with whom Reid trained at a boxing gym in Austin, is a compelling figure in his own right, a charismatic young man whose checkered past led to his deportation and nearly derailed his boxing career. Meanwhile, for Reid and his traveling companions, Mexico, long treated as a playground by Texans, was a land filled with "bedevilment" in more ways than one: "The allure Mexico holds for most Texans is almost genetic," Reid writes. "Danger, real or imagined, is part of the thrill."
In "The Bullet Meant for Me," after a long night of drinking, Reid and three friends, young male staffers from Texas Monthly, stupidly disregard dire warnings to stay away from Mexico City's unlicensed cabs and find themselves confronted by gunmen in a foreboding, deserted section of town. Realizing that the group is in serious trouble, Reid blindly screws up his courage and attempts to land a clumsy right hook on the gunman he christens "Honcho." The blow misses, and finding himself shot through the gut with a bullet lodged against his spine, Reid cries out "I'm killed."
"The taxi and pistoleros vanished from our lives," he writes of the scene. "I was in agony, and furious at myself. You had a good life, a good marriage, and you come down here and get yourself wasted by some chickenshit thug. I was embarrassed by what I had said. Such a bad Hollywood line. Mike thought it was so trite it must be a signal of triumph: I had staged a comic pratfall to make them go away. My groans soon disabused him of that."
Still, the gravity of the situation, which would leave Reid temporarily paraplegic and impotent, took a while to sink in. "As my stretcher was being raised to the back of the ambulance, John stepped out from the crowd and said: 'Hey, Jan, it's going to make a great story.'"
Reid's response? "Oh, fuck you!"
In contrast with Blake, whose story concludes with his death, Reid literally gets a second lease on life. For much of "The Bullet Meant for Me," he taps into his personal history to tease some meaning out of his Mexico City shooting, but there's a good deal more going on here. Sure, we get tales of the author as a bucktoothed boy with a girl's name getting his ass kicked in the schoolyard. When he won't go down during a particularly vicious beating, one bully memorably taunts him, "Boy, do you want me to make soup out of you?"
But these scene-setters primarily key Reid's musings on a variety of aspects of Texas manhood, from the cultural divide that separates Texans and Mexicans to the inexorable pull boxing has on his life. "There is no rational defense of boxing," he writes. "It regularly kills and maims its contestants, and the professional business of it is a sleazy rotten mess. But I couldn't help myself."
That's an odd admission for Reid to make, given that so much of his book is dedicated to confronting the predominant myths of manhood; for instance, he learns early to reject the contention that fighting is, at base, a sign of virility. By the time he takes up boxing in earnest, the author is already well aware that this, like many other adult male passions, stems from the same adolescent self-mythologizing tendency that leads businessmen in their 40s to purchase $30,000 motorcycles and don leather outfits.
For Reid, fighting is a similar manifestation, but when he writes of Chavez's boxing matches, the book crackles and pops with electricity. It becomes apparent that beneath the grotesque showmanship that has given us such unsavory characters as Mike Tyson, there is much artistry to be appreciated in this often misunderstood sport. And in contrast to the chaotic violence of the real world, which can spill over into the lives of innocents -- whether they're high school students or noncombatant women and children in Afghanistan -- the boxing ring is clearly intended to contain and regulate the sport's undeniable brutality.
Just as he stops short of condemning the sport of boxing, Reid ultimately finds a way to reaffirm his decision to throw that punch at Honcho. He even eventually makes it back to the boxing gym where his odyssey began, ultimately switching from a right- to left-handed stance in order to hit harder. The author is not content with pat responses that seek to justify or condemn his earlier decision. I would argue that this is also the way to regard Blake's actions, similar in so many ways. "A woman who thought the episode was a variety of madness peculiar to men asked if I would do the same thing again," Reid writes. "I didn't answer because the replies were complicated and contradictory. No, of course not, because even if I wanted to I would never have the ability to do something so reckless and violent. But, yes, I'd risk taking another bullet, if that was the only way [my friends] would still be walking around."
You've got to wonder, if things had turned out differently, if Reid hadn't regained his ability to walk or to make love to his wife, would he still stick by that decision? It's not a question I would dream of putting to him directly, but I imagine that the 57-year-old Reid would thank his lucky stars he's still around to answer it.