By what measure are men “men” anymore? How do they express their masculinity in an age when rites of passage have abandoned them, when they have put down their swords and hunting bows? Instead, they saddle up their SUVs and trucks seemingly named for imaginary steeds: Silverado, Avalanche, Blazer.
Several recent books have plumbed these testosterone-rich depths. In “How to Cook Like a Man,” Daniel Duane offers one yardstick of manhood. In “Man Up: Cracking the Code of Modern Manhood,” actor Carlos Andres Gomez breaks the news that he need not fight all the time, treat women as objects, and shut down his emotional self. Not to mention throngs of reality TV shows concerning man caves, dirty jobs, and most dangerous catches.
Adding fodder to the manhood conundrum are Craig J. Heimbuch’s “And Now We Shall Do Manly Things” and Dean Adams’s “Four Thousand Hooks.” Both assume the macho mantle and prove their mettle, but in different ways.
“And Now We Shall Do Manly Things” finds Heimbuch in manhood meltdown. A journalist and father from a hunting family who proposed to his wife in L.L. Bean’s Freeport, Maine, mothership, he feels saddled with an “anticlimactic superhero creation story.” His inability to afford a mortgage is emasculating. (”Journalists are, in fact, the only people who marry teachers for the money,” he jokes.) Haunted by various memories of being a wimp, a “sense of panic, a feeling of emptiness, anxiety, and incompleteness” consumes him.
Heimbuch dreams of being like outdoorsy TV host Steven Rinella. “Now there’s a man who knows exactly who he is, what he likes, and what he wants to do,” he thinks. When Heimbuch’s father gives him a family heirloom, a shotgun, he hatches a plot. “I would venture off into the woods, gun in hand, and kill something and then everything would be better.” That’s the setup quest for our hero, who spends a year immersed in the subculture of hunting, hoping to bag big game and reclaim his mojo.
The stunt journalism genre, as demonstrated by the likes of George Plimpton and A.J. Jacobs, has its issues. Namely, does writing about an artificial project drive the lived life and dictate the way the story ends? (Writing “Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks,” I asked the same question.)
In Heimbuch’s case, the narrative feels forced and padded. He also detours into digressions that add little. Heimbuch can take three pages to describe a meal. Vivid characters could emerge, folks off of whom he could ricochet his evolving ideas. On a trip to a National Rifle Association gun show, Heimbuch cleverly pegs attendees as “Period Purists” and “Pseudoparamilitarists,” and we can feel his journalist’s appetite whetted. Yet no up-close encounters with gun nuts emerge. What, no interview with Ted Nugent?
Like his literary heroes, fellow Midwesterners Bill Bryson and Garrison Keillor, Heimbuch aims for a chummy, folksy tone. Sadly, he often misses his target, the funny bone. It’s not that “And Now We Shall Do Manly Things” doesn’t raise the right questions about 21st-century manhood. It’s that Heimbuch’s adventures, while amusing, could perhaps fill a couple of articles but feel too scrawny to support a book.
“Four Thousand Hooks” takes another tack. This is pure adventure. Adams recounts his stint as a 16-year-old working on an Alaskan halibut schooner called the Grant, his grandfather’s boat, in 1962. Through Adams’s greenhorn eyes, we see the action — like how to haul aboard a 7-foot, 300-pound, line-caught fish — intercut with 50-year-old letters the kid writes home. Like Heimbuch, Adams also observes men around him, such as his Uncle Jack, the captain, and seeks their secret key to manhood.
As the young man labors to get his sea legs, the reader learns as much about the culture of fishing boats as the journey of its narrator. Each scene is laced with jargon like “fo’c’sle” and “gurdy” (unseaworthy readers can consult the 16-page glossary). Where Heimbuch’s narrative is rife with personal reflection, Dean’s story is more sinewy and spare, understated and often gorgeously written: a dock crane hoists a “net so swollen with fish that it hung like a huge teardrop.” (The prose also falls prey to some clunkers; after one long shift, Dean collapses in bed. (“It felt so good” is his humdrum observation.)
“Four Thousand Hooks” begins and ends with disaster, perhaps the same rugged, character-proving adventure Heimbuch hoped to find himself confronting in “And Now We Shall Do Manly Things.” But what is the greatest danger he faces during his hunting exploits? Falling through ice and getting his feet wet, sans ironic or comic commentary. Meanwhile, Adams heads back to school in 1962, unable to articulate to his friends how he had been changed in cataclysmic ways. “My story was from the sea — and beyond their grasp.”Ethan Gilsdorf, author of “Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks,” can be reached at www.ethangilsdorf.com. Follow him on Twitter @ethan