That’s an achievement. But the man who made a meme out of Nietzsche’s notion that “time is a flat circle” isn’t going to tell a simple story about hard work and steady forward progress. By his reckoning, his fame wasn’t so much about raw ambition as much as it was with being preternaturally “alright, alright, alright” with everything, every step of the way.
Take a break from it all by heading to a monastery or RVing for three years? Perfect: “Driving the highways of America has always been my ideal office.”
Take a break from taking a break with a long debauch at the Chateau Marmont? That’s perfect, too: “I took a lot of showers in the daylight hours, rarely alone. I partook.”
Cash in for a bit and make dreck like “The Wedding Planner”? It’s all good: “I enjoyed being able to give people a ninety-minute breezy romantic getaway from the stress of their lives.”
Change course, demand juicier roles and launch the McConaissance? Gotta do you, man: “I’d been going to bed with an itchy butt, waking up with a stinky finger for long enough,” he writes, probably not plagiarizing Sir Laurence Olivier’s autobiography.
McConaughey’s self-effacing slacker-cool attitude, which lets him casually drop a few thousand on the hapless Buffalo Bills in the Super Bowl, has made him an ideal masculine movie hero for our anxious moment. The world is on fire, but he has got you; he’s our mindful-breathing Brando. That has made him ripe for satire — his gnomic musings in car ads practically begged for it. A great thing about “Greenlights” is that the persona never sounds like a put-on. The bad thing, though, is that he obviously wrote it himself and seems certain that in addition to being a memoirist he’s also a certified motivational speaker and, worse, a poet.
McConaughey, who will turn 51 in November, recalls growing up in rural Texas, the son of parents who married three times and divorced twice. His father was a pugnacious character. A pipe salesman and onetime draftee of the Green Bay Packers, he would recruit Matthew’s brother for a urinating contest and once whipped up a scheme to have Matthew claim emotional distress from a breakout-inducing skin cream, a ruse undone when he was presented with a photo naming him the most handsome man at his high school. Later, McConaughey’s dad would fulfill his dream of dying while having sex, and how could McConaughey not be inspired by that kind of temperament? “Yes, he called his shot all right,” McConaughey writes.
His first major film role was fittingly quirky: A chance meeting with the casting director of “Dazed and Confused” in a hotel bar led to him to the role of Wooderson, the 20-something still stuck on chasing high school girls. It’s where he uttered that first “alright, alright, alright” — “the very first words I said on the very first night of a job I had that I thought would be nothing but a hobby, but turned into a career.”
He’s glad that people have taken up “alright, alright, alright” as a mantra, but then McConaughey seemingly never met a mantra he didn’t like. In college, he stumbled upon “The Greatest Salesman in the World,” a 1968 book by the author Og Mandino, whose work is a bottomless resource for Successories posters and #MondayMotivation posts. Mandino’s ethos of positivity and persistence transformed McConaughey, which is to his credit. Alas, it also means he wants to try his hand at it, too, and “Greenlights” is stuffed with vaporous, circular proverbs for would-be McConaugheys: “All Prodigals once Pharisee, All Pharisees once Prodigal,” “I am good at what I love, I don’t love all that I’m good at,” “the arrow doesn’t seek the target, the target draws the arrow,” “I was remembered by being forgotten.”
A fortune cookie might have written much of “Greenlights,” if a fortune cookie had starred in “Interstellar.”
McConaughey’s pronouncements all feed into his core philosophy of what he calls “livin”: “There’s no ‘g’ on the end of livin because life is a verb,” he insists, which is a reasonable way to understand life, if not gerunds. Throughout “Greenlights,” the doctrine of “livin” manifests itself through aphorisms, bumper stickers and poetry, the last of which is uniformly cringeworthy. He makes no grand claims to literary greatness, but that hardly removes the sting of bad puns (“Fish for yourself. / Self-ish.”), Dr. Seuss-isms (“I swallow vitamins with a beer I do, / chew more tobacco than I ought to”) or poems where the title alone should put you off reading further (“Today I Made Love to My Woman”).
Be it through memoir or Instapoetry, McConaughey pushes an ethos of learning to take your hands off the wheel. The “Greenlights” of the title refers to moments when the universe gives us permission to do new things; reds and yellows are the things that stand in our way. McConaughey has obviously navigated this successfully, but his wisdom isn’t exactly transferrable. Might I, too, refuse lucrative romantic lead roles till better scripts come along? Or hike through a rainforest on Ecstasy and float naked on the Amazon River because an erotic-dream-slash-nightmare told me to?
Following the lead of his first connection in Hollywood, who told McConaughey he would get the work he wants when he stopped wanting it so much, McConaughey’s most cherished advice is non-advice. “I believe everything we do in life is part of a plan,” he writes. “Sometimes the plan goes as intended, and sometimes it doesn’t. That’s part of the plan.” Some plan.
But the McConaughey effect is that you can’t be too annoyed at McConaughey — seeker, world traveler, naked bongo player turned well-meaning family man. (He’s married with three kids, another one of those good-things-happen-when-you-stop-seeking-them things.) So, on a scale of “How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days” to “True Detective,” I figure “Greenlights” is a solid “Magic Mike” — simply structured, a little flashy, but not as insightful as it wants you to think it is. The lengthy bio at the end of “Greenlights” states that McConaughey is “a very intentional man.” But the intentions are largely a mystery to all but the man himself.
Mark Athitakis is a critic in Phoenix and author of “The New Midwest.”
By Matthew McConaughey
Crown. 304 pp. $30