ABOUT MEN Reflections on the Male Experience Edited and With an Introduction by Edward Klein and Don Erickson Poseidon Press. 317 pp. $17.95
A.M. Rosenthal, until recently the executive editor of The New York Times, has always been the primeval artist (if we can so dignify a mere journalist) with a consuming interest in what simply is. It was in that spirit that he invented the book before us, which doesn't bear his name but is the selected harvest of a column called "About Men," which has been running in the magazine section of the Sunday Times since June 1983.
Rosenthal's thinking, according to editors Edward Klein and Don Erickson, who select the pieces for the column, was strictly pragmatic and opportunistic, although they don't phrase it that way. Rosenthal realized that women were getting most of the deep emotional coverage in the wake of liberation -- a column called "Hers" was already established in the daily Times -- and decided it was time to let the gents hang out their own grief-stained laundry. Or as Russell Baker somewhat uncomfortably says in his foreword, "crying men" are now "in."
At any rate, "About Men" is what Abe Rosenthal wrought with that combination of hard-nosed sagacity and innocence that has always characterized successful innovators. And never mind that Jean Genet, Graham Greene, James Agee and even the big daddy of them all, Henry Miller, had already paved the road with their own brave male confessions.
If none of the 72 contributors to this volume is quite as daring as the originals, the airing of male secrets is still fascinating, and despite its occasional, embarrassing self-pumping ("As a result, I have become a better man ...") this is most definitely a collection to recommend.
First, a word as to method. None of the pieces runs to more than 1,000 words, so there's little risk of boredom and a real challenge to the writers to get in close to the nerve quickly. As to range, this is literally the whole schmear -- the subjects include the murder of a brother, "An Amateur Marriage" (refreshingly unenthusiastic about the institution), even trying to impress New York with a new wardrobe. This last reads like a haberdasher's game plan for storming the heights, its author being none other than Simon and Schuster's editor in chief, Michael Korda. Other themes: a writer down on his luck slinging drinks at a Greenwich Village bar; a middle-aged man getting fired from the deanship of a seminary; what it's like to have all your marbles at 86; and "Cars and Self-Image," a beautiful little piece.
There is not really a dud in the lot if you believe, as I do, that self-revelation in a cold and often sniggering world is a virtue in itself. Every one of these candid dips into the soul took invisible manliness to write, even when the man involved disowns the gender and calls himself "a wimp," as does novelist Thomas Flanagan. Which leads us to lesser Flanagans in this batch who flagellate themselves for being men and make the rest of us squirm at their trendiness. The worst and most surprising offender in this regard is the hot novelist Paul Theroux, who tells us, "Being a man is bad enough; being manly is appalling."
The authors are an odd combination of free-lance writers, Times staffers and an assortment of "names" (Malcolm Cowley, Chuck Barris, John Kenneth Galbraith, David Mamet, Isaac Asimov). The mix for this compilation (almost half of everything so far printed in the column) is a canny blend of the raw and the refined. Just like the too often bad-mouthed American man, wouldn't you say? The reviewer was Fulbright writer in residence at the University of Haifa, Israel, in 1985-86.