Book World: Three works explore what it means to be a man in modern America

October 16, 2012

Pity the American man. Beset by the tides of cultural change, his once-unquestioned authority undermined, his old-fashioned stoicism out of favor, he seems at risk of being consigned to permanent marginality. Three new books offer divergent but provocative illustrations of what it means, in the end, to be a man.

1If old-style machismo is on its way out, then good riddance, says the poet and actor Carlos Andres Gomez. Man Up: Cracking the Code of Modern Manhood (Gotham, $26) is a hybrid beast, both a fervent manifesto and an earnest if clumsy chronicle of a “journey to becoming a man, a different kind of man, a man who lives and moves and acts outside of the predetermined boundaries of masculinity.” Gomez has the certitude, the near-bluster, of the young and gifted; his disdain for Neanderthal attitudes is cheering, but his brashness can occasionally be off-putting. One can admire Gomez’s openness of spirit and the essential generosity of his message while recoiling from his occasional grandiosity. The poetry interspersed throughout the memoir is raw and heartfelt but badly undercooked. Gomez is 30, and thus has plenty of time to refine his artistic strategies and grow into the man, and poet, that he so plainly is capable of being.

2Charles Rowan Beye is a retired Ivy League classics professor, a Midwesterner who came of age in the pre-Stonewall, distinctly non-cosmopolitan milieu of 1940s Iowa. His struggles to come to terms with his sexuality and its implications make for an intermittently fascinating account in My Husband and My Wives: A Gay Man’s Odyssey (Farrar Straus Giroux, $26). Like Gomez, Beye is often repelled by conventional ideas of masculinity, and his memoir traces a constant tension between his libertine urges and his conventional, often-oppressive familial and professional duties. Beye’s fundamental stodginess is often endearing: “I played at being hip but I really wasn’t ready for the sixties,” he confesses at one point, and he found the Greenwich Village scene “boring,” preferring instead “the simple virility of my high school friends.” But Beye holds fast to the unfashionable idea that men are hard-wired to value the sexual act over all that soppy emotional stuff.

3Davy Rothbart is an editor and essayist who is regularly featured on NPR’s “This American Life.”His irreverent brand of humor translates seamlessly to the page in My Heart Is an Idiot (Farrar Straus Giroux, $25). The irrepressible Rothbart has the ability to talk to anyone, whether it be an allegedly 110-year-old black man he meets on a Greyhound bus or a (possibly) wrongfully accused murderer. He has an unforced curiosity and a natural empathy that make him an ideal traveling companion and a sneakily perceptive, if idiosyncratic, reporter. He is also quite often killingly funny. Crisscrossing the country in search of adventure, love, alcohol and tall tales, smitten with every pretty girl he sees, drawn to the company of the unemployed, the misfit, the criminal, he’s helplessly soulful — “In my sadness, the world grows more vivid,” he writes — but wide-eyed and ready for anything. At one point, one of Rothbart’s fellow oddballs tells him, “There’s no key to the universe, you just have to point your way in one direction, keep going, keep going, keep going, and see what happens.” Words to live by, for better or worse, and as good a motto as any for modern masculinity in all its complexity and contradictions.

Lindgren is a musician and poet who divides his time between Manhattan and Pennsylvania.


”My Heart Is an Idiot: Essays” by Davy Rothbart. (FSG)
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