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Writes of Passage

By Jonathan Yardley,
whose e-mail address is yardleyj@washpost.com
Tuesday, August 9, 2005

HOW TO BE A MAN

Scenes From a Protracted Boyhood

By Thomas Beller

Norton. 231 pp. Paperback, $14.95

Thomas Beller is a smart, funny, interesting guy who labors under the misfortune of knowing that he's a smart, funny, interesting guy, but for the most part he manages to avoid the pitfalls -- narcissism, self-absorption, self-congratulation -- that such knowledge often creates. To be sure, he is an accomplished navel-gazer -- "How to Be a Man" is all about Me, Me, Me -- but he is disarmingly self-deprecatory and gets his laughs, of which the book has a number, mainly at his own expense.

Guys writing about guys is all the vogue these days, as we are reminded daily by the likes of David Sedaris, Augusten Burroughs and Peter Hyman. Most of it is not as funny as its authors clearly think it is, and most of it rarely rises above "Lad Lit," the male equivalent of Chick Lit, but it's definitely found a readership. Whether that readership consists largely of men who think these writers will help them understand themselves or women who think they'll help them understand men is far from clear, but it's very much a part of the contemporary urban scene, in which younger people of both sexes seem to spend most of their time analyzing themselves and each other, not to much apparent self-knowledge but to a good deal of self-gratification.

Me Generations have been around for a long time. Back in the 1950s an undeservedly forgotten humorist named Roger Price organized the "I'm for Me First" party to richly amusing effect, and later Tom Wolfe came along to nail the Me Decade, so when a senility case such as yours truly points out the same tendency among the young of today, it's not meant to take note of the decline of the species but to make the obvious point that the more things change, the more they remain the same.

So Beller writes in an old if not especially honorable tradition, and for the most part he writes well. Now in his early forties, he's lived a varied, somewhat eccentric life, almost all of it (except for college) in Manhattan, where he was born. He now lives in the West Village and is active in literary affairs, running a Web site called Mr. Beller's Neighborhood ( http://www.mrbellersneighborhood.com ) to which many writers contribute. He's published a collection of short stories, "Seduction Theory," and a novel, "The Sleep-Over Artist," the titles of which suggest that amatory matters are of much interest to him, an impression confirmed by "How to Be a Man."

The 20 essays published herein are a decidedly mixed bag. It's all journalism, published in places like the New Yorker, Elle, Slate and the New York Observer, i.e., places that are working very hard to be right out there at the cutting edge, wherever that happens to be at any particular moment. Some of the pieces are fairly straight reportage, albeit with a personal angle: a center for the treatment of "sex addiction" in Arizona, strip clubs, a minor-league basketball tryout camp. These are all good enough as such things go and contain occasional moments of insight -- "the recovery movement colonizes every aspect of human experience and makes it something that needs to be cured. . . . It makes pathological that which is part of life" -- but the best pieces turn out to be those in which Beller writes about himself and his own experiences.

Thus there's a wry and rather touching account of going to the Academy Awards ceremony in Hollywood with his mother, who'd been nominated for "a documentary film entitled 'The Restless Conscience,' which examined the resistance to Hitler inside Germany," on which she'd worked for a decade. She didn't win, but that isn't the point of the essay, part of which takes due note of the irony ("I thought about the people in my mother's movie -- their concern for ethics, their sense that actions have consequences -- and how odd it was that they should in some way be here, in a place filled with tuxedos and chiffon dresses") and part of it is about the "wonderfully illuminating" look that came across her face when a fellow filmmaker and fellow loser "turned to her quite suddenly and gave her a big kiss on the cheek." It's a lovely piece, short and sweet.

Beller's life has been fortunate and deprived. His family has had enough money to live in what sounds like a comfortable apartment at a respectable Manhattan address, but his father died (lung cancer: he smoked) when Beller was a boy, and the loss has haunted him. He doesn't dwell on it -- indeed, I wish he'd written more about it -- but this is a real loss as opposed to the fake or self-inflicted losses we encounter in the world of Burroughs and other professional self-flagellators. Obviously his mother has been a rock for him but, again, the amused affection with which he writes about her is low-key and never self-serving. Such reticence in this age of calculated emotional display is all too rare, and entirely welcome.

When he wants to, Beller can be funny. For five years he played drums in a rock band called (very nicely, at least in the eyes of this lover of old-time baseball) Honus Wagner, in the course of which he learned many "reasons not to be in a band: One is likely to acquire, as I have, a slight ringing in one's ears (especially if you're the drummer). One hears about money a lot but rarely sees any. Not being in a band would mean not waiting for that big break. You would no longer stagger offstage after the best show of your life, which you put everything into because the record company person was there, only to discover that the record company person was not there." As for drumming:

"Up onstage, a rock band has license to behave as badly as they please -- all except the drummer. He is the only one who must spend the whole time sitting down, as though in class. Whereas other musicians gain attention with interesting lyrics, catchy melodies, or, at the very least, an arresting stage presence, a drummer tends to get attention by being loud, bombastic, and generally having a fit not unlike a temper tantrum in which all the pots and pans in the kitchen are thrown on the floor. It's a medium that often tends toward the unsophisticated, the primal, the animal."

Elsewhere Beller writes about fights with girlfriends in the car ("On the road, the fights are tropical in their intensity, and also their brevity"), sports ("Sports journalism is probably the most overfunded activity in the world. So much effort in connection with such meager rewards! These little nuggets one hopes to get from players. It's like asking the magician how he does it") and various other matters that readers will find to be of varying degrees of interest, from working as a bicycle messenger in Manhattan to being in charge of inventory at H&H Bagels, which makes the best bagels in the world. There's not really a whole lot about how to be a man, but few readers are likely to care.

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