Black men and the American Dream: two very different perspectives
David Goggins and Casey Gerald share their extraordinary lives
David Goggins faces Mt Whitney and the last 13 miles of the 135-mile Kiehl Badwater Ultramarathon, in Lone Pine, California. Photograph: Robyn Beck/ AFP/ Getty Images
Can’t Hurt Me: Master Your Mind and Defy the Odds
Two very different books from two very different individuals, offering two very different perspectives on the same subject: the 21st century black male’s stake in the myth of the American Dream.
David Goggins is famous – some might say notorious – as the only man in history to complete elite training as a Navy Seal, Army Ranger and Air Force Tactical Controller. An extreme athlete among extreme athletes, he was, for several years, one of the US military’s most prominent ambassadors in the drive to recruit more African-Americans.
On retirement he went on to compete in scores of ultra-marathons and ultra-triathlons, frequently setting course records (he currently holds the Guinness World Record for the number of pull-ups completed at a given time – 4,030 in 17 hours). More recently, high-profile speaking gigs and appearances on Joe Rogan’s podcasts have made him a role model for lost boys who look to ultra-achievers like Jocko Willink and Timothy Ferriss for guidance and example.
Can’t Hurt Me: Master Your Mind and Defy the Odds (Lioncrest) is less a motivational text (a term Goggins loathes) than an autobiography with life lessons tacked on the end of each chapter. Written with the help of travel writer and journalist Adam Skolnick, it’s a blunt but effective instrument. The prose is more spit than polish – Goggins loves his f-bombs and his exclamation marks – but he and Skolnick are extremely effective storytellers and, despite the subject’s nuclear self-belief, there’s surprisingly little bluster. In fact, Goggins seems to relish painting his past self as a bullied, overweight, depressed young man terrorised by a violent father, hamstrung by poverty, plagued by racial abuse and the kind of physical health problems that later force him to undergo the notorious Navy Seal Hell Week several times in the same year.
“They say there’s always light at the end of the tunnel,” he states, “but not once your eyes adjust to the darkness, and that’s what happened to me. I was numb. Numb to my life, miserable in my marriage, and I’d accepted that reality. I was a would-be warrior turned cockroach sniper on the graveyard shift. Just another zombie selling his time on earth, going through the motions.”
Goggins punished himself with merciless training programmes and study regimes in order to pass army entrance exam
A military career offered deliverance from a life of bug exterminator gigs and doughnut binges, but not before Goggins had punished himself with merciless training programmes and study regimes in order to pass army entrance exams.
The doctrine that got him through was a variation on Jocko Willink’s Extreme Ownership riff, one that espoused total accountability and a fair bit of aversion-therapy – what he calls “callusing the mind” – through extreme physical and mental endurance tests, using disciplinary techniques that seem part Buddhist (life is suffering, so embrace The Suck), part Stoic and part Henry Rollins bootcamp sergeant.
The resulting book often resembles the written equivalent of Rocky or Warrior, with similar stakes at hazard. Major publishers offered Goggins six figures for the manuscript, but he opted for a self-published print-on-demand model. The gamble paid off. At last glance, Can’t Hurt Me was doing serious business in the non-fiction lists.
Casey Gerald is a whole other story. Gerald is the son of a former football star with substance abuse issues, and a charismatic young mother with mental health problems that caused her to vanish from her family’s lives for several years. He grew up gay in a black Dallas community, partly raised in his grandfather’s evangelical church, an experience that provides the book’s grabby introductory sequence: the boy and his kin gathered on the eve of Y2K, waiting to be raised to the heavens in the Rapture. The Second Coming doesn’t happen, but Gerald’s life proves charmed.
Although far from his father’s equal in terms of sporting prowess, his hare-like speed on the field nevertheless gains him entry to Yale, where he co-founds and becomes president of the Black Men’s Union. This leads him to Harvard, which leads him in turn to the inner circles of financial power (Wall Street ‘08) and political influence (a chance meeting with George W Bush), which leads to high-profile media gigs, ambitious philanthropic enterprises (MBAs Across America) and TED talks.
All golden material, but the skill is in the telling in There Will Be No Miracles Here: A Memoir (Tuskar Rock Press, £16.99). Unlike Goggins, Casey Gerald is a writer’s writer, and his prose glistens with sophisticated rhythms, sly humour and Biblical rhetorical tricks. He’s also good with character, whether describing his mother’s speech patterns (“Mama always bit off the end of her t’s like a hi-hat”) or her morning make-up application ritual (“She always pulled her mouth tight like she was placing the last bolt in the Brooklyn Bridge and didn’t want to kill a million people by losing focus”).
Nor does he shirk from rawer, more painful areas, such as his mother’s disappearance when he was 13: “I did not feel insane at all in those days, though I did sometimes feel a gnawing pain in my stomach, not like I wanted to vomit but a bit like I have felt, maybe you have felt, when you rush to catch the train and make it just in time based on the schedule and you stand there at the platform’s edge, leaning over, peering down into the dark and empty tunnel where the train was meant to be five, now 20 minutes ago, and arrival times have come and keep on going and you wonder where’s the train and you worry that you’ll lose your job or you know that you will miss your big appointment or you wonder if your mother’s dead. And you just don’t know.”
Look good. Feel good. Play good
Later, Gerald invokes the drag queen Dorian Corey in Paris Is Burning while describing the theatrical levels of care he and his team-mates devoted to their pre-game locker-room rituals, “tearing perfect strips of bright white or jet-black tape to spat our cleats, pulling long thick socks above our calves, adjusting neoprene sleeves until the seams formed a straight line from our elbows to the opening of a sticky pair of gloves we begged for, fastening our glittering pants like corsets, squeezing too-tight pads over narrow shoulders, and finally placing a shiny domed crown on our heads – a helmet, with black paw print stickers on the sides and, for the chosen few, a clear or tinted or mirrored visor that kept stadium lights out of our eyes and fear in our opponents’ hearts. Look good. Feel good. Play good.”
There Will Be No Miracles is the work of a seriously accomplished writer. It’s one thing to live an interesting life, quite another to capture it on the page. Casey Gerald has laboured long hours in the chair so that the pleasure is all ours.
Peter Murphy is the author of the novels “John the Revelator” and “Shall We Gather at the River”. His short story, “The Downtown Queen”,appears in the forthcoming Faber anthology “Being Various”, published in April.