Boyz II Men: 5 Books About Guys Seeking Relevance

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.

Updike2Through 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.

Like a modern Death of a Salesman's Willy Loman, Alan Clay desperately needs just one big deal to turn his life around. He's staked everything on the sale of an IT system to the King of Saudi Arabia, and during a hot and boozy week in an under-construction Saudi resort town he confronts the financial terrors that  define his generation. As he tells his estranged daughter in a letter: "It’s important to know that with adults, though there is continual development, there is not always improvement. There is change, but not necessarily growth." Evison, getting more sure-handed with each book, gives us the nearly-broken character of Ben, who is pot-smoking and sleep-walking his way through the aftermath of tragedy, until a road trip with a terminally ill teen gives him a glimmer of what he might still become. Even so, as Evison warns us in this deeply personal novel, there are no guarantees: "Be ready to be brought to your knees and beaten to dust. Because no stable foundation, no act of will, no force of cautious habit will save you from this fact: nothing is indestructible."

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." 

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.

Hollywood executive Greyson Todd flees his wife and young daughter and their well-funded life to travel the world, giving free reign to the bipolar disorder he's kept hidden for almost 20 years. The lone novel among these five written by a woman, the difference here is that the damage isn't entirely self-inflicted. Told in twelve chapters, each introduced by Todd receiving electroshock treatment in a psychiatric ward, Amazon senior editor Mari Malcolm called it “a literary page-turner … and a brilliant inside look at mental illness.

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