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Book Review : A Look at the Mark War Leaves on Men

February 07, 1986|JULIA CAMERON

Some American Men by Gloria Emerson (Simon & Schuster: $17.95)

Gloria Emerson, who distinguished herself as a foreign war correspondent for the New York Times, has written a book that will be compared, inevitably and correctly, to Gail Sheehy's "Passages." "Some American Men," Emerson titled her work, leaving the choice of inflection up to the reader.

Case-History Fashion

Like "Passages," also written by a journalist, and a New York journalist at that, Emerson's book explores in episodic, case-history fashion, the lives of a number of "representative" subjects. Perceived by the publishing world as important, both books share the strengths and weaknesses peculiar to their genre. A cut above pop psychology due to the style and the credentials of their authors, they nonetheless proceed along the premise that from these particular lives we may draw meaningful generalizations applicable to our lives and the lives of those we know.

Like the many husbands who asked their wives for a divorce, only to be gifted with a copy of "Passages" and told they were going through a phase, the reader may wonder how much of Emerson's male experience is individual and how much universal, how much relevant and how much merely readable. The book is readable, make no mistake about that.

Emerson's style is that crisp, tough yet elegant New York hybrid: a female writer who writes of masculine concerns while constantly reminding the reader that she, as a female, has had different ones. In its way, this prose technique is a self-centered one. We are never aware of Emerson's femininity. We are told always that it is because of it that men have opened up to her and yet, after awhile, it is hard to separate what experience is theirs and what is hers, what is male candor in the presence of an understanding female and what is male preening or, worse yet, masculinity perceived in such polar terms that it hardly seems human at all.

Do men really think like that or does Emerson?

To be more precise: Emerson assures us that the central masculine experience is war. That it may well be. It was certainly a central experience for Emerson who covered Vietnam for the New York Times and "saw huge numbers of American men as few women do: in unimaginable misery and peril." With war as her central reference point, her governing lens, to borrow a film term, she focuses on men quite differently than another woman might--and perhaps differently than they might themselves. No matter what she begins talking about, sooner or later, Emerson and her American men find themselves talking about war.

One wonders, finally, who keeps bringing it up? Are they really so relieved to finally meet a woman who understands? Or, like anyone else with a great obsession, does Emerson keep steering the conversation in that direction. There is certainly enough of the morbid, the shocking, the perverse in this book to signal the reader that somebody does an awful lot of dark musing about the darker things in life. Perhaps it is the men. Perhaps it isn't.

A Nifty Mixture

The attraction of books like "Passages" and "Some American Men" is a nifty mixture of narcissism and voyeurism. Will I find myself or my lover in it? What will he say or do if he doesn't see my feet peeping from behind the curtain? Ideal for bedside reading, intellectual bonbons, anecdotal and addictive in their sheer accretion of personal detail, the stories Emerson has collected and organized raise many questions worth mulling, but answer few.

The writing is compelling, as hers always is, but as an important book, perhaps it was for her in personal terms. Perhaps it may be for others. The "some" in the title does not quite add up to a whole picture. That is why the title is a shrewd one. The book's intent may be said to raise questions, not answer them. Finally, the book tells us more about one American woman than it does about any of the men.

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