Summer of Our White Male Discontent
The American white male may be in decline, says Taylor Antrim, but judging from three new books, midlife malaise is still fodder for good fiction. Plus, VIEW OUR GALLERY of Asterios Polyp.
Have you heard? The American white male is in decline! Whites will be a minority in the U.S. by 2042, but look around. The future is now. A black president, a wise Latina on the Supreme Court—our grip on power is slipping. You can’t even arrest a black man in his own home these days without folks raising a fuss.
Well, thank goodness for literary fiction. Aggrieved members of America’s newest oppressed class may be relieved to hear that white men still enjoy pride of place at their local bookstore. Alongside the aging-white-guy classics of the last half-century—your Rabbit Is Rich, your American Pastoral, your Independence Day—a bumper crop of terrific new fiction depicting the anxieties and preoccupations of well-off, middle-aged white men has arrived.
A seriocomic tour de force, a visually stunning graphic novel, and one breezy piece of Hollywood-ready entertainment—it’s a short stack of late-summer reading that’ll make you wonder: Why is white male discontent so naturally literary? Why is it fodder for so many successful books? (See also: Netherland, Herzog, The Moviegoer…it’s a long list). The simple answer might be that there’s always a ready supply of vaguely unhappy middle-aged white men writing fiction. But I’d also suggest that the novel, better than any other written form, accommodates those small-bore anxieties, the quotidian, often shameful preoccupations that turn us inside out but don’t really measure up to the global events of the day. You’re a white guy who’s a little depressed, your eye is wandering, and you sort of want a fast car? Try putting that into an Op-Ed.
But for the novel, nothing is beneath notice. On second thought, I suppose that won’t be much comfort to the likes of Glenn Beck and Pat Buchanan, and whoever else is fretting about the decline of white men in America. Well, face it, guys: It’s an irreversible slide. Might as well read a good book along the way.
Asterios Polyp by David Mazzucchelli
Anyone still doubting the maturity of the graphic novel, its capacity for subtlety and perceptiveness should take a look at Asterios Polyp. Author and illustrator David Mazzucchelli has worked in more traditional DC and Marvel comic-book worlds his entire career, but the eponymous protagonist of this story is about as far as one can get from a traditional superhero. A pedantic and self-important “paper architect,” Polyp goes into crisis when his marriage dissolves. A lightning bolt striking his Manhattan apartment ends his tidy, orderly self-centered academic life for good.
Polyp hops a Greyhound bus and lands in a small rural town, where he talks his way into a job as a car mechanic. A lovable and unlikely collection of eccentrics becomes a sort of second family to Polyp as he slowly, carefully ponders the way in which he’s fouled up his life. Polyp’s flaws are achingly human and his late-stage attempts to make amends are nothing short of heroic. The old-fashioned novelistic pleasures make it almost beside the point that Mazzucchelli’s book is ravishing to look at—but it is, full of clever visual tricks and an elegantly restrained palette.
Click to View Images from Graphic Novel Asterios Polyp
Amateur Barbarians by Robert Cohen
The men in Robert Cohen’s supremely funny, big-hearted fourth novel, Amateur Barbarians, are in crisis—the cause of which is a little hard to nail down. Yes, Teddy Hastings, 53, a principal of a middle school in a quiet New England town, recently lost his younger brother to cancer. But: “Was this not a good enough life?” he wonders. “Nice food, comfortable chairs, a snoring dog at the foot of the bed. Fresh flowers laid out in spacious rooms. The level blue heat of marital sex.” Cohen’s other protagonist, Oren Pierce, 33, has finally shed his youthful, restless dilettantism by getting himself a job at Teddy’s school. This is just the kind of grounding he’s always needed. So why does he feel even further from the truth of who he is?
Over the course of a year both men go hilariously off the rails. Teddy shaves his head, takes a professional leave, and creates a scandal in town with a newfound photography hobby—and then lights out to East Africa to get in touch with his inner-primitive. Oren’s derangement is less spectacular, a search for inner peace at the bedside of a comatose colleague and then actually in bed with Teddy’s wife. Such is Cohen’s generosity and good humor, and the playful acuity of his prose, that though it’s clear neither man will likely overcome this restlessness—their discontent is too innate, too hardwired—you find yourself rooting for them all the same.
This is Where I Leave You by Jonathan Tropper
Jonathan Tropper’s fifth novel, This Is Where I Leave You, may not quite be in the same literary weight class as these other two, but it has a breezy, agile charm of its own. Thirty-five-year-old protagonist Judd Foxman has just taken a one-two punch: He’s caught his wife in bed with his boss and his father has died. Worse, actually, he now has to go home to sit shiva with his brothers and sister, inlaws, nieces, nephews, and mother—none of whom can quite stand each other. We spend a rambunctious, exuberantly comic week with the squabbling Foxman family, members of which are constantly throwing punches, losing their pants or falling into the swimming pool.
Amid all of this, Judd must come to terms with his own arrested development. “To have nothing when you’re 20 is cool,” he realizes, “but to have nothing when you’re halfway to 70, softening and widening on a daily basis, is something altogether different. It’s like setting out to drive cross-country without any gas money.” Fortunately there is a long lost hometown girlfriend to help him grow up—and hey, maybe his marriage isn’t kaput after all. The novel has the antic pace and madcap humor of a Hollywood-ready screenplay— Meet the Parents meets Garden State or something. Lo and behold, Tropper’s jacket bio tells us he’s working on an adaptation for Warner Brothers.
Taylor Antrim is a critic for The Daily Beast and the author of the novel, The Headmaster Ritual.