Skip to main content

Joey Franklin

Delusions of Grandeur: American Essays


Delusions of Grandeur: American Essays

University of Nebraska Press, 2020

In Delusions of Grandeur Joey Franklin examines the dreams and delusions of America’s most persistent mythologies—including the beliefs in white supremacy and rugged individualism and the problems of toxic masculinity and religious extremism—as they reveal themselves in the life of a husband and father fast approaching forty. With prose steeped in research and a playful, lyric attention to language, Franklin asks candid questions about what it takes to see clearly as a citizen, a parent, a child, a neighbor, and a human being.

How should a white father from the suburbs talk with his sons about the death of Trayvon Martin? What do video games like Fortnite and Minecraft reveal about our appetites for destruction? Is it possible for Americans to celebrate bootstrap pioneer history while also lamenting the slavery that made it possible? How does the American tradition of exploiting cheap labor create a link between coal mining and plasma donation in southeast Ohio?

Part cultural critique, part parental confessional, Delusions of Grandeur embraces the notion that the personal is always political, and reveals important, if sometimes uncomfortable, truths about our American obsessions with race, class, religion, and family.

Review by Phil Snyder at Faculty Book Lunch

The Full Franklin: A Review of Delusions of Grandeur

Montaigne, first prophet of the essay, hoped his work would channel a certain “genuine, simple, and ordinary manner, without study and artifice,” and he assures us that had propriety not forbidden him, he would have written himself “quite fully and quite naked.”

This epigraph, taken from an essay in Joey Franklin’s superb collection Delusions of Grandeur entitled “The Full Montaigne”—a clever appropriation of a phrase repopularized in a 1997 British film entitled The Full Monty, about a group of unemployed middle-aged, blue-collar men who form a striptease ensemble to earn some money—makes an impossible claim about the art of the essay, which is everything but “simple and ordinary” or “without study and artifice.” On the contrary, as this collection of ten terrific essays amply demonstrates, the beautifully articulated essay is complicated and extraordinary, chock full of study and artifice, carefully written, revised, and polished, as Leslie Norris (former BYU Poet in Residence) used to say, until there is absolutely no evidence whatsoever of the writer’s craft in the final product. Further, as Roland Barthes has argued, the “striptease,” or “Full Monty,” inevitably fails to reveal some hidden, taboo, transcendental signified of the self or to provide anything approaching complete fullness. Still, given the limitations of language, the essay can do productive work in narrating skillfully and meditating deeply on the human condition because, in Franklin’s words, it “contains all the necessary ingredients for a clear-headed engagement with the complicated nature of human life.”

The collection’s subtitle, American Essays, suggests a firm denial of any claim to universality in favor of a narrower cultural and social grounding in its writer’s native experience as a forty-year-old white, educated, middle-class American male professor who is married—happily, his lovely wife still wants you to know—with three boys and whose serious religious commitment to what Jesus Christ called the two great commandments—to love God and to love one’s neighbor as oneself—drives his discourse as it does his life. As a perfect literary tonic for contemplating today’s troubled times in America and elsewhere, Delusions of Grandeur unpacks and critiques the individual and collective delusions that represent gross systemic refutations of the idealistic principles and documents upon which this country was founded. It reminds us that the promised economic and social justice has yet to be fulfilled for everyone, and most importantly, urges us to approach that task with a humility characterized by a consistent calling of ourselves into question.

Franklin exemplifies this approach in every line as he seeks to “excavate a little public truth from my private reality.” In so doing, he creates essays that oscillate bravely but tentatively between the two poles of the question that synthesizes the great postmodern dilemma: “How do I throw off my oppressors without becoming an oppressor myself?” In referencing Emmanuel Levinas occasionally, he also invites Levinasian ethics into the conversation, most specifically the naked face-to-face encounter with the Other who makes an infinite demand on the Self, one that cannot be displaced or fulfilled, only welcomed with a “me voici,” or “Here I am,” the same phrase that Samuel the Old Testament prophet uttered in response to God’s nocturnal call to him as he slept in the temple when he was a boy.

In these essays, marked by vivid textures of intimate scenes and honest meditations that sometimes might discomfort his readers but never turn them into voyeurs, Franklin hospitably welcomes the Other in a variety of guises—starting with his many readers—that include his past selves, generations of family members both solid and sketchy, homeless people he came to know well from Lubbock’s Tent City, fellow plasma donors all stuck with the same regular money-making desperation, a three-hundred pound trucker standing stark naked by his truck cab at sunrise, Trayvon Martin via media reports, displaced Japanese refugees whose homes were destroyed by the Tohoku tsunami, other essayists who have written well enough to be quoted, and a multiplicity of others who are always rendered respectfully albeit somewhat humorously at times.

Often, Franklin engages the Other with his sons occupying the complicating position of the Third, who mediates the demand of the Other with a terrifying demand of its own, greatly complicating an already impossible ethical situation that, again, can only be welcomed through a sincere and patient gesture that invokes a hopeful, humble grace. For the essayist, the incessant drive for sufficient expression constitutes this ethical gesture, for, as Franklin writes, “[t]he essayist wants nothing less than the right words to make a story live.” In Delusions of Grandeur, the stories live because, as an inveterate, full-time essayist, Franklin’s natural mental and emotional state revolves around working to get the words right, as in the following observation he reports making in the midst of his father’s twin brother’s funeral: “[M]y mind kept coming back to that image of Dad staring at his twin brother in the casket—that rarest of moments when a man can stare death and himself in the face at the same time.” Brilliant. No wonder he has an obsessive love/hate relationship with contemplating and questioning the Full Franklin in the mirror and on the page.