The Book of Men is a collection of 80 pieces of short fiction by a variety of contemporary writers, some well-known, some beginning to make their reputations, all supposedly dealing with the theme, “how to be a man.” The book is a project of Narrative 4, a nonprofit “global educational organization that promotes the exchange of stories as a way for participants to engage more profoundly with the world. We strive to give voice to the voiceless.” It is “curated” (as opposed to edited) by National Book Award winner, Colum McCann, along with the editors of Esquire and Narrative 4.
The curators taking a very broad interpretation of their theme have come up with an eclectic anthology that looks at both traditional and unconventional ideas about what it means to be a man. In keeping with the Narrative 4 mission statement they “encourage people to walk in one another’s shoes.”
The stories come from all over the world. They are written by men and women, gay and straight, old and young. They run from a short paragraph to perhaps three or even four pages. They are all untitled and arranged alphabetically by author, from Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche to Mario Alberto Zambrano.
The list includes such luminaries as Kurt Anderson (writer and host of Studio 360), novelist Amy Bloom, actor Gabriel Byrne, Kite Runner author Khaled Hosseini, dancer and writer Vanessa Manko, and Irish Jacklyn of all literary trades Edna O’Brien (not one to waste words, her contribution runs a little over 40 words). A very short author’s resume follows each story.
Of course when you’re talking about 80 stories, there is bound to be something you like; there is bound to be something you dislike. If you like realism, there are stories like Israeli Assaf Gavron’s account of a taxi driver with a murderer for a fare. If you like something a bit more impressionistic there is a dreamlike piece from Salmon Rushdie. There are straight narratives and interior monologues. There’s serious humor from Shane Crosley, meta-fiction from Ian McEwan, and magical realism from Manil Suri.
As you would expect there are the stories of boys learning to suck it up, but there are also the stories that focus on a man’s softer side. There are the stories that stress marching to one’s own drummer, and those that look at fitting in. But then there’s a story about transgender and transformation, a story about teens molesting a drunken girl, and a story about a dog and reincarnation: something for everyone.
This is not the kind of book you want to read in large chunks. The pieces, though short, reward some thoughtful analysis. Read too much at one time, and the stories get jumbled; they lose their individuality. This is a book best savored a story or two at a time.