Cavell, Benjamin

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CAVELL, Benjamin


Son of Stanley Cavell (a professor and author). Education: Harvard University, degree (English literature; cum laude), 1998.


Home—Cambridge, MA. Agent—c/o Author Mail, Alfred A. Knopf, 1745 Broadway, New York, NY 10019.


Short-story writer and novelist.


Rumble, Young Man, Rumble (short stories), Knopf (New York, NY), 2003.


A novel.


Based on his debut as a writer—with the book of nine short stories Rumble, Young Man, Rumble—and his background as a Harvard University boxer, Benjamin Cavell has been compared to authors Norman Mailer and Ernest Hemingway. Cavell's stories, although each stands alone, have a common theme of the physical overshadowing the emotional in the lives of his young male characters. As these men interact with friends, fathers, and the women in their lives, Cavell's sparse prose and short sentences mark the rhythm of what Charles Smyth, in a review for January Magazine, called "the precincts of testosterone-charged American manhood."

"Balls, Balls, Balls," the opening story, introduces Barry, owner of a sporting goods store for which the story is named, and his buff, steroid-injecting employee Logan Bryant, as they work out at the gym. Barry announces his plans to bring in a military simulation specialist to beef up the store's champion paintball team. The team is surprised to learn their assignment is a realistic assault on neighborhood houses. In the story's background is Logan's anxiety over his sexual prowess.

In "The Death of Cool," an insurance claims adjuster becomes increasingly paranoid and obsessed with self-protection and finally encounters a truly life-threatening situation. Smyth noted that Cavell describes his character's mental state in "mesmerizing, incremental detail."

Another tale of white-collar machismo, "Evolution" follows two stock traders bent on committing the contract murder of a girlfriend's father merely for the physical experience. A contributor to Kirkus Reviews called the characters "as mordantly funny as they are casually inhuman."

Cavell includes two boxing stories in the collection, although neither involves actual fighting. "Killing Time" follows a star boxer and his mediocre sparring partner through the week leading up to a big prize fight, as tension builds. "The Ropes," the final story in the collection and the most praised by critics, chronicles the slow physical and mental recovery of college boxer Alex Folsom as he awakens from a coma after a near-fatal beating by his opponent in a Golden Gloves tournament. Spending the summer at his father's home on Martha's Vineyard, Alex falls in love with a wealthy woman who is engaged to be married. Gary Shteyngart, in a review of Rumble for the New York Times Book Review, while finding most of the first stories in the book to contain "missteps" and be plagued by empty characters and misplaced dialogue, nonetheless praised "The Ropes," saying its "beauty and inventiveness … make it stand out." Shteyngart called Cavell's writing "minimalist prose reinvigorated" and said the story becomes "a quiet tragedy fueled by youthful urgency, deflated masculinity and the persistent issue of class."

Andy Battaglia, in an online review for the Onion A.V. Club, wrote that Cavell's stories do not "lead to real revelations or surprises" but that the author "adds glimpses of tenderness to lugheads whose cartoonishness threatens to overwhelm." John Green in Booklist noted that Cavell "ruthlessly deconstructs masculinity" and exposes his characters for the insecure personalities they really are. A contributor to Publishers Weekly found the collection "filled with dead-on, often hilarious dialogue" and offering "a thoughtful meditation on masculinity and class." In a review for the Baltimore City Paper Online, Blake de Pastino called Cavell's athletes "pulped and exhausted, with as much healing to do inside as out" and his characters "brutish men whose weakest muscle is their heart." De Pastino compared Cavell's stories to those of David Foster Wallace, author of Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, but said Cavell "lacks the gravitas" to fully develop the issue of men's lives.

In an essay posted on the Borzoi Reader Web site, Cavell wrote, "I have always been afraid that if anyone knew how difficult writing was for me, they would never read my work." In an interview with Robert Birnbaum for Identity Theory, the author noted that he revises passages as he writes: "I really keep going back over sentences and paragraphs and massage them as I am going." He acknowledged the influence of Hemingway on his writing, saying that he discovered the great author as a preteen but finally had to stop reading him because his influence was too strong. Cavell said of Hemingway, "While I find his writing stirring, I find it limited in terms of the themes that appear in it and the subjects." Of the comparison to Mailer, Cavell said he was also influenced by and remains fascinated by the author, but, he said, "I don't think I write anything like Mailer." In the interview, Cavell also acknowledged the influence of his own father, Stanley Cavell, a Harvard philosophy professor and author, and said every wall of their home had floor-to-ceiling bookshelves. Cavell knew from an early age that he wanted to be a writer. He also noted that movies have been a strong influence on his imagination.

A contributor to the Nation described Cavell's style as "practically naked, muscular and tense." Smyth concluded his review by saying the stories "are filled with insight into human frailty, motivation and possibility" and that Cavell is "a skilled and serious fiction writer with a very bright future." The Kirkus contributor called Rumble, Young Man, Rumble a "terrific debut collection" to which readers will "want a ringside seat."



Booklist, April 15, 2003, John Green, review of Rumble, Young Man, Rumble, p. 1447.

Kirkus Reviews, March 15, 2003, review of Rumble, Young Man, Rumble, p. 411.

Nation, June 16, 2003, review of Rumble, Young Man, Rumble, p. 41.

New York Times Book Review, June 8, 2003, Gary Shteyngart, review of Rumble, Young Man, Rumble, p. 6.

Publishers Weekly, April 28, 2003, review of Rumble, Young Man, Rumble, p. 49.


Baltimore City Paper Online, (July 16-July 22, 2003), Blake de Pastino, review of Rumble, Young Man, Rumble,

Borzoi Reader Online, (October 24, 2003), Benjamin Cavell, "What Makes You a Writer?"

Identity Theory, (August 25, 2003), Robert Birnbaum, interview with Cavell.

Institute of International Studies, University of California, Berkeley, Web site, (February 7, 2002), Harry Kreisler, "A Philosopher Goes to the Movies: Conversation with Stanley Cavell."

January Magazine, (June, 2003), Charles Smyth, review of Rumble, Young Man, Rumble.

Onion A.V. Club, (August 6, 2003), Andy Battaglia, review of Rumble, Young Man, Rumble.*