During my formative reading years, a dominant theme among the big-name male authors of my parents’ day was the middle-aged, middle-class white guys getting old storyline. They all needed something more than that 9-to-5 job, that suburban stolidity. At least a girlfriend, maybe a road trip, usually some drinks.
Through my teens and 20s, I didn’t have much of a taste for the novels on my father’s bedside, nor for the self-absorbed struggles of Richard Ford’s Frank Bascombe, John Updike’s Rabbit Angstrom, or the other neurotic Philip Roth-like characters of the 70s and 80s, with their secrets and longings. Now that I’m one of them--a middle-aged 9-to-5-er--I suddenly find myself drawn to modern versions of the Bascombes and Rabbits, the lost and/or damaged souls, ages 40 and up, still trying to “figure it all out,” a process that often involves intoxicants and reckless, even decadent behavior.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m a happy guy. I swear. But I also recognize the mid-life changes (or lack of change) that can cause a man to veer off life’s highway and ask himself, Where the hell was I going?
Then again, it’s not the typical woe-is-me narrative that appeals to me. I prefer authors who take it all a step further. Call it Loser Lit or Rabbit Redux-Redux, here are five examples of compelling how-do-I-be-a-man storylines, featuring memorable (if not admirable) characters trying to turn their lives of quiet (or noisy) desperation into something meaningful. Because, more than the infidelities, the estrangements, the alcohol, Loser Lit is characterized by a battle against the ticking of the clock and a search for relevance.
- A Hologram for the King, by Dave Eggers
- The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving, by Jonathan Evison
- Me and the Devil, by Nick Tosches
The darkest among these five books, Tosches's tale of an aging, recovering alcoholic writer named Tosches and his newfound thirst for female blood is uncomfortably crude and profane, a desperate man's descent from one decadent layer of hell to another. And that's the point: sometimes there's no stopping the downward spiral of a life without purpose. As Tosches/Tosches admits at the start of this raw, brilliant, twisted and hard-to-look-away novel, ""Somewhere along the line, something went wrong."
- A Familiar Beast, by Panio Gianopoulos
I loved this little book. Despite it's slim size (think postcard on steroids) and a page count of 54, it packs an unexpected punch, capturing the sorrowful angst of that kind of modern man who doesn’t quite know what it means to be a man. “You’re a shadow of a man," a woman tells Marcus after they meet at a bar, and she hears the story of his ill-timed affair and estrangement from his wife and newborn child. "You’re a worm.” Marcus knows she's right, and asks himself: "Had he learned anything?" This is surprisingly elegant and smart stuff from a debut author.
- Too Bright to Hear Too Loud to See, by Juliann Garey