Author Sean Thor Conroe discusses masculinity under capitalism and why he’s not a ‘Fuccboi’ anymore
The Brooklyn-based author's explosive debut confronts the anxieties at the core of the 20-something "Fuccboi"
Sean Thor Conroe is in the process of rolling his third cigarette from his bedroom in Brooklyn, when he compares his debut novel, Fuccboi, to a “self-help book”. He laughs, but it’s not an entirely unreasonable sentiment, especially when you consider this generation of young men, Conroe included.
A lot has already been said about the novel, most likely due to the visceral response that the word “Fuccboi” seems to rouse in people. There are the assumptions that Conroe is the protagonist (they share the same name, background, and certain biographical details), then some criticism about the way he referred to the female characters in the book (“ex-bae”, “side-bae”, “editor-bae”), and finally, a plagiarism controversy involving writer Sam Pink — who he credited in the book’s acknowledgements.
It’s the perfect maelstrom for one of 2022’s most highly-anticipated book releases. The novel follows the eponymous Sean one year into Donald Trump’s presidency, as he tries to get his life on track after a breakup. Set in Philadelphia, Sean manages to do everything but. He rails drugs, delivers Postmates, muses on his past lives as a failed cross-country walker, SoundCloud rapper, and weed farmer.
Fuccboi and Conroe, however, are definitely more than the sum of their much-dissected parts. Written with a caustic sense of humour — replete with internet slang and one-line paragraphs (“Fa shoo”, “Fuck outta here, bitch”) — Fuccboi charts a reckoning within societal conceptions of masculinity under late-stage capitalism.
“I’ve attempted book projects in different ways, where the title is something that comes later, but with this project, it was almost like I started writing it when I thought of the title,” he tells me. “It sort of seemed like a guiding principle. I tried to keep it as the orienting question throughout — of what that means, where he falls into that, whether he is or isn’t a Fuccboi… I don’t know if it was deliberately audacious, but maybe somewhere, at the back of my head I knew.” He laughs: “It’s a good title for a book”.
“There’s also the dismissiveness of it,” he adds. “‘Oh you’re just a fuccboi, I don’t need to pay attention to you!’ Sometimes it’s warranted, and sometimes the book’s asking, “is it?”
The Fuccboi is a perfect vessel for such an exploration, ubiquitous as he is throughout history, from Don Quixote down to the Williamsburg-dwelling HYPEBEAST bro we know today. But in the novel, which may better be described as autofiction, Conroe peels back the Carhartt and confronts the anxieties at the Fuccboi’s core, with verve, humour and empathy. It’s essentially a bildungsroman for a generation of disaffected men.
“There’s a certain type of young boy, often fatherless, and without an inclination towards certain intellectual or scientific modes, and their outlets for applying their libidinal, productive energy seems to be disappearing more and more in America,” Conroe describes. “I’m aware of that bigger thing, you know, men need tasks,” he laughs again. “They need to find a use for themselves, or else, they take it out on someone else.”
Conroe, who is half-Japanese, was raised by a single mother after his parents split up when he was in the fifth grade. “I moved a lot growing up, pretty much every two years until high school. I felt like that and always talking differently to everyone, combined with whatever was going on with my dad, made me less able to commit to a system with a hierarchy,” he recalls. “I would have this patricidal energy where I would be like: ‘fuck you dog, I’m out,’ you know?”
Conroe found a love in basketball, and even went so far as to be recruited by Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania. But he quit the college team in his second year, and continued to study writing, with a minor in philosophy. Though, after a disagreement with the college over a missed credit in 2014, things unravelled. He attempted a cross-country walk that only lasted 100 days, and then bounced around from Santa Cruz to Philadelphia, working in construction while writing short stories for online publication. At that point, Conroe says, “getting any money for writing was an absurd idea.” It was after relocating again to New York when he was able to win over the late Giancarlo DiTrapano, of Tyrant Books, and in him found an enduring mentor.
Much of this biography isn’t unfamiliar to readers of the novel. Sean is working on a book, and he too fails to complete a cross-country walk — but he also gets unwell. During the second half of Fuccboi, he suffers a horrific skin condition and has to return home to be taken care of by his mother and sisters. “You know, I think you can run around for a certain amount of time just driven by your self-righteousness and how you can scrap in your twenties, but at a certain point it catches up to you,” Conroe comments. “[Sean] starts to realise that he has to be aware of that impulse and try to participate in things. Trying to participate in bigger things does not make you inauthentic. It’s okay and sometimes you need to humble yourself.”
“How much fuckery is too much fuckery,” indeed.
Conroe then seems to divert to his own life: “That was 2019, I started going to writing programs and I was kind of going like, ‘alright, you almost died, let’s try to listen to some older people and try to participate in a group’.”
When I prod and ask whether he’d also faced a serious illness, he pauses before replying, “Yeah, I’ve had experiences with like, autoimmune stuff.” Nothing more.
The idea of a certain type of male trying to exist authentically within capitalism keeps coming up during our conversation. For Conroe, the Fuccboi is more than his shapeshifting signifiers. He exists in a liminal space, not exactly outside all of the traditional modes of society, but somewhere close to the edge. We trace it back.
“The old Platonic ideal of capitalism doesn’t work clearly, but it can in microcosms — like in what role people have, and what tasks they do for the group. So, you know, [Sean] starts assessing himself, and what he can do even if it’s as simple as delivering some damn veggies until he can fucking walk again. Great if you can swing that resentment and nihilism towards the system — but it gets him in trouble.”
As Conroe puts it, his character, and other Fuccbois are trying to find “some kind of code” for how to move in the world. “Ideas of honour and chivalry aren’t even in the lexicon anymore. Of course, there’s super sketchy stuff in those knight stories [he points to Don Quixote and Lazarillo de Tormes, which were references points for Fuccboi]. I’m not saying that we should revert to medieval times, but there is something interesting about that. Sometimes people want clear direction or instruction.”
The outlook for this type of man, this type of Fuccboi, can be pretty bleak, I say. “It’s a big thing, he replies. There are incels, of course, but he returns quickly to that same demographic of young men, who don’t have a dad and may not have graduated high school or college. “They’re important. And we need to find tangible ways to make them feel useful, because there’s a mode where that energy gets released into the world in some other destructive…” Conroe trails off and smirks. “Yeah, I’m looking out for boys.”
He backtracks. “Maybe I wasn’t trying to write about masculinity, maybe I was trying to write in a way that would make me less prone to flipping out on people randomly. Find a way to do something with — he gestures — all that.”
What Conroe calls the “flip out” or the “spaz out instinct” isn’t necessarily what it sounds like. “It’s about anytime you’re stuck in resentment and you’re mad at something in the world.” He references something he read about the capacity to do evil, and how it’s defined by actions that bring no light, and only increase the suffering and pathology of the world. “I don’t think that just applies to masculinity. It’s about getting yourself to a place where it’s good to help and protect other people. You see people upset on the internet and taking it out — that’s a flip out. It’s not just bad for the other person, it’s bad for you to be in that state. You have to figure out where it’s coming from.”
It’s a touching sentiment from an author that many considered to be a Fuccboi in the “it takes one to know one sense”. However, it has increasingly become clear that Conroe has been in on the bit all along. I ask him if he’s a very different man from the person in the book, and he scoffs and says with a grin, “now… definitely.” He seems confident that those who read the book will shake off their presumptions about it pretty quickly.
Each chapter of the book has a different title corresponding to who Sean is at different points (“Ball Boy”, “Nurse Daddy”, “Outdoor Dude”). As each month passed, Conroe shed a self too: “It’s that belief that we can change, and that we can evolve new versions of ourselves. Especially from moving around so much and having to adapt to new places, I feel like I have a way more malleable sense of self now.”
I note that it may be interesting for him to re-read the novel in a few years. “Already,” he responds. “Running back through the chapters, it’s all a mixed-up collection of old selves that are running around writing about all selves.”
Now, with the publication of the book Conroe is starting over. Fuccboi doesn’t seem so connected to him anymore. “It’s like I’ve given birth to a thing, and it’s gone off to college.” He’s focusing on staying healthy, and is dipping into a palate-cleanser of Arabian Nights and some non-fiction — the latter always gets him in the mood to write.
The style of Fuccboi, however — its immediacy and intimacy — look to become canonical of Conroe’s writing. “No writing is inherently valuable,” he says on the subject. “ You can’t dilly dally, no you’ve got to say it now, the reader could just go back to Twitter at any second. If you’re gonna write anything useful you need to kinda give something to the reader. If it isn’t vulnerable and if you aren’t a little bit apprehensive to share it, it means there’s something there,” he pauses, then backtracks again…
“Well, ah, I don’t know if I even believe that anymore.”
And thus, Sean Thor Conroe continues his evolution.