However, a media storm is not a book, and the Trump bombshell — first mentioned, briefly, on Page 4 and not discussed at length till more than 200 pages have passed — is just one piece of a much fuller story about the many hideous men who have assaulted, choked, groped, hollered at and otherwise imposed themselves on Carroll since she was a child. They include big names, including Les Moonves, as well as little-known, unnamed men, such as the waterfront director of a Girl Scout camp who, Carroll says, ran his hands “inside my shorts and under my blouse” when she was 12. (In a footnote, she absolves another biggie taken down by #MeToo: “I worked with Al Franken, who was the least pervy guy in New York. What the Democrats were thinking when they made him leave the US Senate is beyond me.”)
“What Do We Need Men For?” is more than male bashing, but it’s certainly that; it’s also a story of a spirited woman with an indomitable personality and a zest to get on with it that’s refreshing in this age of victimization and self-analysis.
Carroll, 75, is a stylish writer and often funny; her book is full of zingers. Harvey Weinstein “looks like he’s been stuffed by an inebriated taxidermist” — and her narrative bounces along like a huge spray of champagne bubbles. It’s impressionistic and often interrupted by photos (i.e.., from her first Communion and when she was crowned as Miss Indiana University), strings of all-caps and exclamation points, advice lists (i.e..,“Twelve Places to Meet a Rich Man”) and witty footnotes. This is all good fun, but Carroll’s humor and jaunty writing can’t completely camouflage her pain over the damage caused by some of the men in her life. This creates a friction between style and content that can be unsettling.
Carroll sets out the purpose of her book on Page 1: “The whole female sex seems to agree that men are becoming a nuisance with their lying, cheating, robbing, perjuring and assaulting . . . and so on.” So Carroll offers a Modest Proposal: that we kill men and extract their chemical elements and sell them. It’s a satirical proposition, with a wink to Jonathan Swift, that sets Carroll on an investigation that frames the book and gives it its title: She will find out what, if anything, men are for.
To that end, in October of 2017, she set off in her Prius (nicknamed Miss Bingley; see “Pride and Prejudice”) with her poodle, Lewis Carroll. Her stops are American towns named for women, most of which are in the Midwest and the South: Elnora, Ind.; Florence, Ala.; Marysville, Ohio, are three. “I will only eat in cafes named after women, listen to music sung by women, drink wines named after women, read books written by women, and wear clothes designed by women,” she tells us. As she drives across the country, she will be keeping a list: The Most Hideous Men of My Life List (we already know the biggest name on it). It’s a lark that’s both darkly humorous and deadly serious. Sometimes, it can be hard to tell the difference. Regardless, she’s both having fun and spitting angry.
What she finds in her travels is disheartening. To the question “What do we need men for?,” she is met with either silence or vague replies such as “I can’t say, ma’am” or “Well, I’m not sure.” When she asks a more specific question such as, “Name five women you’d like to see running the country,” one young woman comes up with a list that includes J.K. Rowling and Jackie Kennedy.
Carroll’s investigation is troubling, too, in ways she may not intend: It reveals not only the struggle between the sexes but also geographic and class differences. It demonstrates the bubble that Carroll, who has spent most of her adult life on the East Coast, lives in. One woman she interviews, named Linda, doesn’t know who Harvey Weinstein is, and in a footnote, Carroll mentions that “many people” didn’t know who Weinstein is. I suppose that gives Carroll the liberty to describe Linda’s hair as looking as if it were cut by “the same person who did Demi Moore’s hair in G.I. Jane ” and subsequently ask Linda, “Why don’t lady farmers color their hair?”
These are unfortunate distractions from a witty and often disturbing book. It’s unfortunate, too, that despite the heavy accusations at its core, the book offers no realistic fixes, nor is it concerned with larger issues of masculinity, ones that may (or may not) explain male behavior. The typical answer to Carroll’s question, “What Do We Need Men For”? is, sadly, “not much.” This does a disservice to men in general. A better answer to Carroll’s question would be: We need men to vote a certain other disreputable man out of office, because women alone may not be able to.
Sibbie O’Sullivan is a former teacher in the Honors College at the University of Maryland. Her book of essays about John Lennon is forthcoming from Mad Creek Books.
WHAT DO WE NEED MEN FOR?
A Modest Proposal
By E. Jean Carroll
St. Martin’s Press. 273 pp. $27.99