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In the company of men

Us Guys gives us a legion of dissatisfied males behaving badly, including the author

Us Guys: The True and Twisted Mind of the American Man
By Charlie LeDuff
Penguin, 242 pp., $25.95

Watch enough beer and car commercials, and you already know a lot about the psyche of American males. We're hollow, shallow, needy creatures who yearn to be filled up and made whole by women's caresses, big toys, and the make-believe world of alcoholic haze. In short, we're not men at all but boys who refuse to grow up.

Charlie LeDuff's "Us Guys" perfectly embodies that pathetic self-evaluation. Based on a cable TV series anchored by the author, a national reporter for The New York Times, the book serves up an ebullient if weirdly misguided take on its subtitle: "The True and Twisted Mind of the American Male."

The true and twisted mind of LeDuff is more like it. For the most part, "Us Guys" is tinny, overheated exhibitionism posing as participatory journalism. It struts and preens, huffs and puffs, going on and on about the author's capacity for carousing, telling tall tales , and making a good-ol'-boy fool of himself. Somewhere his heroes and betters -- Tom Wolfe and Hunter Thompson -- must be quietly chortling.

When LeDuff isn't looking in the mirror, though, he can summon up underdog desperation with authority. Of an Appalachian fundamentalist preacher, he writes, "McCormick's people are a landless class with weak jaws and hard eyes and sloped postures that make them look as though they were set out to drip-dry on a hook."

The author's affinity for folks like these comes naturally. He tells us that he grew up in working-class Michigan and barely survived his parents' divorce and an older stepbrother's "fight club" beatings. His prose reflects these origins; it's opinionated, confrontational, on the lookout for pretense, even as it fashions its own pseudo tough-guy swagger.

LeDuff doesn't bother with the guys in the boardroom. Instead, he hangs with bikers in Oakland, cowboy poets in Tulsa, arena football players in Amarillo, neo-hippies at the Burning Man festival in Nevada, homicide cops in Detroit, circus clowns in Oregon, male models in New York City, Custer's Last Stand re enactors in Montana, racetrack touts in Miami, and gay rodeo riders in Oklahoma City. Each chapter is a different dot on the map.

LeDuff's self-imposed imperative, it's clear, is to avoid the ordinary. He's not about to spend time with a teacher or a courthouse clerk. Consequently, he can't really test the generalizations on American male mythology he tosses out so readily:

"He should know how to ride a horse, bet on a horse, bet on the stock market and bet on the cards. A good man should know a woman's body and how to please her. . . . An American man should have been raised in church, rejected the church and eventually found virtue in the church."

The truth is, LeDuff spends too little time with his subjects -- a week or two, he admits -- to come up with anything more than punchy sound bites of faux "insight." A young braggart gamely trying to ride bulls in a gay rodeo, for example, is said to be "trying to prove to his straight man that his gay man was really a man." There may be something to this, but the author has no way of knowing.

LeDuff's disparate snapshots are meant to illuminate the "confusion and desperation of the regular man." The causes for the current malaise, he suggests, are twofold. One, already widely acknowledged, is the globalized economy that has robbed him of a steady factory job with decent wages and benefits and the promise of a pension. The other is that he bears the scars of baby boomer permissiveness, notably an epidemic of divorce and AWOL fathers.

"The men of my generation," LeDuff writes, "are angry, howling, nasty, searching. A scratchy feeling that they're getting short-changed, screwed. One scheme after another falls apart. Then a man has no impulse control. The slightest whiff of disrespect is an irritation likely to end in physical harm."

But every generation of American men has its excuse for yahoo-like behavior. The missing father is only the latest. For the boomer generation, Dad may have been home but, alas, he was too often distant and uninvolved, hiding behind his newspaper or off fishing with his buddies.

Here's what I want to know. Why are women so willing to acknowledge shortcomings and work hard to change them, while men are determined to define their vices as virtues? Brawling, boozing , and bedding promiscuously don't make the man. They are hallmarks of arrested development.

Reading "Us Guys," I was reminded of a far better book, "The Tender Bar," J. R. Moehringer's poignant memoir about growing up as the only child of divorced parents. Knowing his dad primarily as a disembodied voice on the radio, the author avidly sought father figures at a local bar run by an uncle.

As he reached adulthood, he gradually realized that it was his mother who embodied "every virtue I associated with manhood -- toughness, persistence, determination, reliability, honesty, integrity, guts. . . . All this searching and longing for the secret of being a good man, and all I needed to do was follow the example of one very good woman."

LeDuff and company might do as well.

Dan Cryer is a contributor to "Good Roots: Writers Reflect on Growing Up in Ohio."

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