TV & Radio
The New York Times
'Self-Made Man: One Woman's Journey Into Manhood and Back Again,' by Norah Vincent
Male Like Me
Review by DAVID KAMP
Published: January 22, 2006
Don't judge this book by its cover. It features two photographs of the author, Norah Vincent. In the first, she's a brassy, attractive woman with short, upswept hair and a confident smirk on her face. In the second, she's done up in man drag, with poindexter eyeglasses, a day's worth of stubble and a necktie. There's your premise in a nutshell: assertive, opinionated Vincent, best known as a contrarian columnist for The Los Angeles Times, goes undercover as a man to learn how the fellas think and act when them pesky broads ain't around. Flip the book open, and the first thing you come to is its dedication: "To my beloved wife, Lisa McNulty, who saves my life on a daily basis." Yes, ladies and gents, the author is a self-proclaimed "dyke."
But "Self-Made Man" turns out not to be what it threatens to be, a men-are-scum diatribe destined for best-seller status in the more militant alternative bookstores of Berkeley and Ann Arbor. Rather, it's a thoughtful, diligent, entertaining piece of first-person investigative journalism. Though there's plenty of humor in "Self-Made Man," Vincent - like her spiritual forebear John Howard Griffin, the white journalist who colored his skin and lived as a black man in the South for his 1961 book "Black Like Me" - treats her self-imposed assignment seriously, not as a stunt.
All that said, it was a stunt that led to Vincent's undertaking her journey into Testostoland. One night a few years ago, she explains in the first chapter, a "drag king" friend of hers dared her to dress as a man and go for a walk in New York's East Village. Vincent pasted on some false facial hair, threw on some loose jeans and a baseball cap, and spent a few hours wandering the neighborhood. With the help of the evening darkness, which concealed the shoddiness of her disguise, Vincent didn't get found out, though she admits she barely interacted with anyone. But the very fact that no one paid her any mind was a small revelation. Vincent had lived in the East Village for years. "As a woman," she writes, "you couldn't walk down those streets invisibly. You were an object of desire or at least semiprurient interest to the men who waited there, even if you weren't pretty." But in her makeshift man drag, she found that the same stoop-sitters and bodega loiterers didn't stare at her. "On the contrary," she says, "when they met my eyes they looked away immediately and concertedly and never looked back. It was astounding, the difference, the respect they showed me by not looking at me, by purposely not staring." If this halfhearted attempt at gender switching could provide such insight, imagine what a year-plus immersion in manhood might yield.
And so Norah transforms herself into Ned. Ned comes into being via a flat-top haircut, a new wardrobe of sports jackets and rugby shirts, a pair of rectangular glasses, workouts to build up the shoulders and add 15 pounds of bulk, a cupless sports bra to flatten the breasts, a convincing layer of facial stubble (made of something called wool crepe hair and applied with an adhesive called stoppelpaste) and some lessons in male speech patterns with a Juilliard voice coach. For verisimilitude, Vincent also acquires a prosthetic member from a sex shop - though, the author takes pains to explain, it's a flaccid version designed specifically for cross-dressers, not an outsize toy for bedroom kicks.
Vincent's status as a "masculine woman" abets this transformation, but the subject of her lesbianism falls away, more or less, once her adventures as Ned begin. Indeed, one of the great attributes of "Self-Made Man" is its lack of agenda or presuppositions. To be sure, Vincent's status as a woman is what makes her observations of male behavior fresh - introducing herself to some guys in a bowling league, she's touched by the ritual howyadoin', man-to-man handshake, which, "from the outside . . . had always seemed overdone to me," but from the inside strikes her as remarkably warm and inclusive, worlds away from the "fake and cold" air kisses and limp handshakes exchanged by women. But in its best moments, "Self-Made Man" transcends its premise altogether, offering not an undercover woman's take on male experience, but simply a fascinating, fly-on-the-wall look at various unglamorous male milieus that are well off the radar of most journalists and book authors.
That bowling league, for example. Norah-as-Ned commits to it for eight months, becoming the weak link on a four-man team of working-class white men. (Vincent has changed the names of the characters and obscured the locations to protect the identities of her subjects.) The resultant chapter is as tender and unpatronizing a portrait of America's "white trash" underclass as I've ever read. "They took people at face value," writes Vincent of Ned's teammates, a plumber, an appliance repairman and a construction worker. "If you did your job or held up your end, and treated them with the passing respect they accorded you, you were all right." Neither dumb lugs nor proletarian saints, Ned's bowling buddies are wont to make homophobic cracks and pay an occasional visit to a strip club, but they surprise Vincent with their lack of rage and racism, their unflagging efforts to improve Ned's atrocious bowling technique and "the absolute reverence with which they spoke about their wives," one of whom is wasting away from cancer.
Compelling in a rather different way is Vincent's account of working as a salesman for one of those shady, Mamet-ready outfits that advertise in the classifieds, offering $$$ to "high-powered" prospects, no experience necessary. Answering such an ad, Ned lands a thankless job going door-to-door selling "entertainment books" filled with coupons for discounts at local businesses. The raw, malevolent arrogance of Ned's fellow salesmen, who actually psych themselves up by shouting out such idiotic motivational acronyms as Juice (for Join Us In Creating Excitement), can't hide their desperation. Vincent scares herself when, dressed up in one of Ned's power blazers, she submits to the Juice mentality and actually succeeds at being a feral-jerk saleswolf, earning her boss's praise as "a highly motivated type a guy."
Ned's whistle-stop tour of modern manhood also takes him to a Roman Catholic monastery, a lap-dance club, a men's consciousness-raising group and on a series of awkward dates with women. (Amusingly, Vincent is utterly astounded by the amount of rejection and hauteur that heterosexual men put up with.) Conspicuously absent from "Self-Made Man," though, are men leading full, contented lives. Perhaps this is a function of the limitations of Vincent's experiment - after all, a "man" created out of thin air and stoppelpaste can't very well insinuate himself into an elegant country club or a loving nuclear family.
But the pervasive melancholy of the milieus that Ned inhabits colors Vincent's conclusions too much. She is, I dare say, too respectful of the "men's movement" instigated by the publication of Robert Bly's "Iron John" in 1990. Attending a retreat with her men's group, she's detached enough to ridicule the tribal drums and plastic swords wielded at the retreat's climactic "spirit dance," but she still buys into the movement's victimography and faux-purgatory nonsense. "I passed in a man's world not because my mask was so real, but because the world of men was a masked ball," Vincent writes. "Only in my men's group did I see these masks removed and scrutinized."
After 200-odd pages of honest and often sympathetic but never mawkish portraiture of the men in Ned's life, this folie à twaddle is a tad disappointing. But what comes before is so rich and so audacious that I'm compelled to remove my critic's mask and reveal to you the supine, unshaven male reader, hooked from Page 1.
David Kamp, a contributing editor to Vanity Fair, is at work on a book about the American food world, to be published later this year.