THE RELUCTANT METROSEXUAL

Dispatches from an Almost Hip Life

By Peter Hyman

Villard. 275 pp. Paperback, $13.95

"The term 'metrosexual' was coined in 1994 by Mark Simpson," Peter Hyman reports, "a British queer theorist who used the word to satirize the phenomenon of 'strays' -- gay-acting straight men who, with their disposable incomes and consumeristic obsessions, were shopping in record numbers in London." Hyman himself defines it (and in so doing defines himself) as "a dandyish heterosexual narcissist in love with not only himself, but also his urban lifestyle; a straight man who is in touch with his feminine side."

Peter Hyman -- the name is genuine, though its multiple double entendres make it sound like a nom de plume -- lives not in London but in New York, and lives the metrosexual life with what he claims are mixed feelings. He is, he says, a metrosexual "reluctantly," as he explains:

"By this I mean that the buzzword has been foisted upon me, and even as I accept that some of its parameters may accurately describe me, I prefer to play the snarky contrarian. And of course, given the title of this [book], it is in my interest to disavow the trend as a marketing construct, but to do so in a way that allows me to embrace certain aspects of it with cagey ambivalence. As with metrosexuality itself, my position is more a posture than it is a legitimate identity."

In other words, "The Reluctant Metrosexual" is an attempt to cash in on the 15 minutes of fame that metrosexuality is enjoying (thanks largely to the inexplicable popularity of the television program "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy") while mocking it at the same time. This is especially evident in the book's opening chapters, in which Hyman does elaborate contortions to ingratiate himself with the reader. The book's fixation on himself, he says, reaches "an astonishing level of self-indulgence and authorial pretense, even for someone as egotistical as I happen to be." He even fires "the first slings and arrows, saving those who would otherwise do so the effort of loading their bows: This book is a pompous exercise in self-aggrandizement that tries too hard to be funny and displays the author's undernourished but delusional sense of his own importance."

Then, for about 40 more pages, that seemed to me exactly the right judgment to pass on "The Reluctant Metrosexual": narcissistic, labored and singularly unfunny, as well as a blatant imitation of David Sedaris's hugely popular self-mocking autobiographical essays. I was within a trice of hurling the book across the room and finding something else to write about for today's assignment. But then, in a chapter about online dating services, the book began a slow turnaround -- not a full 180, but enough of a change to render it more interesting, perceptive and even sympathetic. True, people who aren't being paid to read it may not make it through those first pages, but if they do they'll find a few small but unexpected rewards.

Hyman is in his mid-thirties, the youngest son of a prosperous family from the Detroit suburbs. Like his siblings and his father, he occupies "the slightly confusing position of being a Waspy Jew" (his mother is Protestant) whose "Waspy tendencies illustrate themselves in external ways, while my internal landscape is all Jew," or, as he nicely encapsulates it: "Dress British, think Yiddish." The over-assimilated Jew is scarcely a new phenomenon (think Bernard Baruch or Walter Lippmann), but Hyman describes it with considerable wit and understanding, including a deft account of Ralph Lauren, a "Bronx-bred Jew" who "brought the Wasp aesthetic to the nation en masse," but in a calculated way: "Lauren merely cherry-picked the shallowest parts of the Wasp culture (the clothes, the summer homes, the horses), leaving behind the less savory aspects (the xenophobia, the lack of communication, the drinking)."

Both the clothes and the drinking seem to appeal inordinately to Hyman, who recounts at length his shopping sprees and his nights on the town, but what really fires his enthusiasm is what he calls "dating," a euphemistic synonym for sex. He imagines a conversation between two women, one of whom has just met him and one of whom knows him by reputation. When the latter learns that the former is interested in him, she protests: "But he's a serial dater." Does this bother Hyman? Not at all: "Dating sequentially, one person after the other, in an orderly fashion, until two people happen upon a relationship to which they want to commit with equal enthusiasm. This seems a winning strategy to me." Or:

"The plain truth is that I serial date because I want to be certain that when I stop serial dating, I do so for good. This hopeful rationale is rooted in my belief that, for all of its exposure to not-quite-right-for-me scenarios, serial dating functions as an elongated training camp, preparing those of us willing to run the wind sprints for the marathon that is a committed relationship."

Well. Whether this is really a long windup for "life's most worthwhile endeavor" -- "a dedicated twosome" -- or just a fancy justification for promiscuity is very difficult to determine. Myself, I tend toward the latter interpretation, though in a longish chapter about the breakup of a romance that he thought was the Real Thing, Hyman reveals a desire for stability that appears to be genuine. Certainly, though, this "reluctant" metrosexual's enthusiastic pursuit of "dates" is characteristic of the world he inhabits, the fast, morally obtuse world of the hip Manhattanites in which -- so it was reported not long ago -- sleek young women test-drive sexual partners, a pressure-packed examination that is said to have some men resorting prematurely to Viagra.

Thus for those of us not merely on the outside but a generation or two older than these urban swingers, "The Reluctant Metrosexual" can serve as a guidebook to terra incognita, much as Bret Easton Ellis's "Less Than Zero" served as a guide to the hip underside of Los Angeles nearly two decades ago. Presumably Hyman's book will have no more staying power than Ellis's did, but it is very much of its here and now and as a result is not without a certain value.

Those who delight in passing moral judgment on others will find much to get their juices flowing here. Though his life may be, as his subtitle says, "almost hip," there's also a surprising ingenuousness about the way Hyman recounts his victories and defeats in the great game of love. He simply doesn't seem to comprehend that "serial dating," which to him is harmless at worst and a "winning strategy" at best, may strike others as self-indulgent and irresponsible. He has been on the planet for 31/2 decades, and in that time he has done a lot -- worked, traveled, "dated," etc. -- but he doesn't seem to have learned much. Or grown up much, either.