A Memoir of Manhood
By Dave Itzkoff
Villard. 277 pp. $23.95
This story of a Princeton graduate who spent a few years working at Maxim magazine kicks off with a quote from "Othello": "I have looked upon the world for four times seven years, and since I could distinguish betwixt a benefit and an injury, I never found man that knew how to love himself."
Iago, meet Dave Itzkoff, whose "memoir of manhood" is a paean to self-love (of both types), a whiny junior-league tell-all and a wearying slog through enough office parties, strip joints and coke-laced dark nights of the soul to leave even the most patient reader with an Excedrin-strength hangover.
It is also, I suspect, one more entry in a genre that doesn't appear to be going anywhere. Late last year, the publishing industry was pinning its hopes on "lad lit," stories of anxiety-ridden young men on the make that would, so the thinking went, hopefully produce a "Bridget Jones's Diary" for men. By spring, lad lit appeared to be either dead or on life support; as Publishers Weekly noted, no one was buying the books, but publishers were intent on cranking them out regardless. One notable non-starter was Kyle Smith's "Love Monkey," which used Nick Hornby's "High Fidelity" as a template for a story about a tabloid editor who drifts around Manhattan drinking, scoping out chicks and cracking wise about his unbearable lightness. Itzkoff's story is true, so I guess it's not a knockoff of a knockoff, but it follows the same track and runs out of steam just as quickly.
Itzkoff introduces himself to us as a scrawny, self-loathing type who can't find a girlfriend or grow a beard, and who has major issues with his alma mater and his old man. He shares the world's presumed disdain for Princeton graduates like himself as "committed careerists who have come to see the world as our personal feeding trough"; as he warms up for his own feeding frenzy, he also worries about turning into his dad, a fur merchant who hates his life and snorts coke to kill the pain.
After a brief stint in the William Morris Agency, Itzkoff joins the dumb and troubled Details, serving as assistant to the editor before jumping ship to its dumber competition, Maxim, which panders to the common denominator far too ruthlessly to ever be anything but wildly successful.
Itzkoff figures -- rightly, I suppose -- that readers are just dying to know about life inside that glitterdome. Well, kids, it's about what you'd think: The hours are long, the sexy mid-magazine interviews with B-grade stars never lead anywhere, and staying on top of the magazine food chain always means lowering the bar.
Itzkoff's professional life consists of obnoxious pals who are barely distinguishable from each other and pretty women who won't have anything to do with him. We also learn about his porn addiction, his tireless autoerotic habits and his yearning for a woman who won't dump him. I was dozing through one such bad episode when I was suddenly jarred awake by the author's attempted suicide -- which, thankfully, he recovers from in sufficient time to get down to the real business of the book: recalling in lurid detail every party that made him wonder what he was doing with his life.
As Itzkoff dog-paddles through wave after wave of strippers, lap dances, Ecstasy, coke, crack and misfired seductions, his unwavering belief that his story adds up to something begins to seem almost poignant. He ponders how envied he and his fellows must be by Maxim's demographic slob: "They knew nothing of our mundane day-to-day struggles, of our interminable working hours and the fatigue that was calcifying in our bones -- to them, we were the luckiest guys in America, the ones who got to meet the babes and write the jokes that kept them entertained for an hour or two on the can every day, and they couldn't have suspected that every single one of us would have traded places with any of them in a heartbeat."
There is, toward the end, some ready-made purge to balance the pages of binge, and self-pity soon blossoms into an orgasm of self-approval.
Sept. 11, 2001, arrives, Maxim takes pandering to new lows, Itzkoff throws in the towel, and he and his dad attend therapy together. It turns out that all Itzkoff needed was a hug, a little affection and someone close by to tell him he was okay. Lessons are learned: "Not all shortcomings are liabilities. Not all liabilities are failures. Not all failures are absolvable, or even solvable, but most are instructive, and some are even beneficial."
Well, at least someone got something out of it.