What a piece of work it is to be a man. Virginia Military Institute cadet Rick Wetherill keeps a draconian academic schedule. Punk-rocker Dee Dee Ramone broke his heroin habit on his own. New York interior designer Norm Rathweg works out for two hours a day to stay attractive to other gay men. Steelworker Carroll Megginson performs the most dangerous job in the mill, unplugging the drain in the furnace when its contents are molten. These and three other burden-shouldering men are the subjects of a fascinating and seamless collaboration by writer Frank Rose and photographer George Bennett.
Bennett, who works in black-and-white, is a pouncer. He captures a fleeting diagonal in the afternoon drill at VMI, a galaxy of sparks in the aperture of a steel furnace and the glowing grains of two best-friend hockey players on a Manhattan balcony.
Meanwhile, Rose takes his time to fill in detailed portraits of places and people. His sketch of Lexington, Va., where he attended VMI's civilian rival, Washington and Lee, is loving but warty. The area reeks of Civil War history, and the Institute's infatuation with Stonewall Jackson (who taught physics there) is redolent of the hushed intonation of "Mr. Jefferson" at the University of Virginia. But, as Rose tells it, this hagiolatry has its wry undercurrents. One wonders, for example, what the Institute's administration makes of the fact that, after he was mortally wounded at chancellorsville, the fanatically abstemious Jackson characterized being under the influence of chloroform as "the most delightful physical sensation I ever enjoled."
Rose gives his wit full license in a passage on the presence of several prelapsarian Iranian cadets among the all-American lads of VMI. The Iranians were "dark and alien-looking and in receipt of a stipend rumored at $1,000 per month. [They] were not known for tact or industry or command of English. At one point they wanted the other cadets to salute them on the grounds that they were actually commissioned officers in the shah's navy. Their tendency to limp at crucial moments, gave rise to the term 'Iranian foot,' referring to an attempt to get out of just about anything. Still, the Iranians did succeed in broadening VMI's horizons somewhat. One cadet even turned Moslem after they came. Unfortunately, he went berserk one night and tried to choke his roommate for throwing a piece of ham on his Koran."
The book's longest chapter is about Dallas stockbroker Billy Bob Harris, a 40ish adolescent whose best friends tend to be famous athletes and whose regular Friday-night parties feature his own frenzied commentaries on the music.
Billy Bob has a way with everybody but especially with the beautiful women in which Dallas seems to abound. His technique is flexible and multi-faceted, as seen in this classic ensnarement of a TV-commercial actress. "Billy Bob met her . . . in a supermarket. He saw her pushing a shopping cart and thought she was the prettiest girl he'd ever seen. He started to go up to her but she was so pretty his mouth wouldn't work. So he went home, called the supermarket, and asked them about to page the pretty girl in the red dress. When she got to the phone he told her his name was Billy Bob Harris. She told him that was the funniest name she'd heard yet. He told her she was the prettiest girl he'd ever seen, and they made a date."
Yet for all his bumptiousness and dependence on flashy people, Billy Bob's vitality is enviable and, in the end, appealing. I have the impression that, despite initial misgivings, Rose found himself won over by Billy Bob's enthusiasm. This is just as well: Had Rose been unable to muster a good deal of sympathy for his subjects, he might not have drawn them out as thoroughly as he did.
What Rose has drawn out are the candid -- sometimes even intemperate -- self-revelations of seven men living in what he calls "an uncertain age." All seven have strength of character yet admit to being confused about themselves, unsure of what comes next. Their willingness to share these doubts without fear of forfeiting their masculinity is what makes these men more real than their predecessors.