Four books full of knowledge for the American man
By Dan Zak,
After the metrosexuals evolved into hipsters, after mixed martial arts became a thing, after princess boys started wearing tutus on national television and women started earning a majority of the nation’s income, the modern American man clearly needs some good advice.
It’s hard to find.
Memoirs and how-tos by and for men — like many modern men themselves — seem to align behind two archetypes. One is the lovable-but-hapless former nerd whose lingering social awkwardness provides a lifetime supply of self-deprecating quips and anecdotes (think Jason Segel, Joseph Gordon-Levitt or any man who has read this far). Crash-landing in this category is “ I Suck at Girls ,” by Justin Halpern (It, $16.99), a snoozy meander through the author’s adolescence. Halpern gave the world “Sh*t My Dad Says,” a Twitter feed of his father’s crotchety one-liners and a dead-on-arrival CBS sitcom starring William Shatner. He again drafted the old man to be an overbearing Socratic presence in his new bildungsroman, but Dad smothers son’s attempts to extract life lessons from the tropes of puberty (the nerdy hunt for pornography, the nerdy flight from virginity). Halpern the Younger comes across as a self-emasculating millennial who believes his misadventures deserve to be enshrined between hard covers.
He might re-masculate himself by reading “ How to Land an A330 Airbus, and Other Vital Skills for the Modern Man ,” by James May (Sourcebooks; paperback, $14.99). This “clear, concise, untested, optimistic” book details the proper ways to handle low-probability, high-testosterone tasks, such as how to fight a duel or invade the Isle of Wight. May, host of the BBC2 car show “Top Gear,” balances specific advice (the autopilot-disengage button is nerve-wrackingly near the radio-for-help button on an A330) with historical digressions and witty Britishisms (“How to Prepare and Eat Your Best Mate”). Given the complexities of such challenges, this book is less practical guide and more bathroom amusement, especially for the other archetype of the modern male: the dapper jet-setter with a low body-mass index and over-curated sense of culture (patron saints include Richard Branson, Tyler Brule and whoever writes headlines for Esquire) — in short, the type of man who would look stylish while becoming a hero.
Heroism is indeed masculinity in full flower, but its bloom wilts in “ Bring Me Men: Military Masculinity and the Benign Facade of American Empire, 1898-2001 ,” by Aaron Belkin (forthcoming from Columbia University Press; paperback, $25). Belkin, a political science professor, dismantles the “double binds” of military culture, which he says require unmasculine submission in order to attain military masculinity. His most startling thesis is that this masculinity, which the United States prizes conspicuously, is inherently undemocratic. “Bring Me Men” is textbookish — even in its unsparing descriptions of male rape at the Naval Academy in Annapolis — and the subject matter and prose somehow render the work both provocative and unpalatable. It is, however, an antidote to the jockiness of “How to Land an Airbus” and makes one wonder how Justin Halpern would endure enlisted life, which Belkin prosecutes for the macho rot under its polished decorum.
Perhaps Belkin would prescribe “ Essential Manners for Men ,” by Peter Post (William Morrow; paperback, $14.99), for the U.S. military. The great-grandson of etiquette goddess Emily Post has penned a 2nd edition of an instruction manual that could be summed up in five words: Don’t be a gross moron. To Peter, men are clueless gas factories who must be told to avoid adjusting their genitals in public. He covers everything from hair in the sink (“Clean out the drain”) to handshakes (avoid “the bone crusher” or “the limp wrist”). This updated volume also includes advice on “friending” and online dating, social challenges that great-grandma Post never had to contend with. The author’s most revolutionary tip? Don’t fist-bump a stranger.
Zak is a writer in The Washington Post’s Style section.