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March 08, 1992|CHARLES SOLOMON

IRON JOHN: A Book About Men by Robert Bly (Vintage: $11.). As the author's numerous excesses offer an easy target for satirists, it's become fashionable to dismiss Robert Bly's best- seller as a crock of testosterone. Noting the diminishing male presence in the American family and the dissatisfaction many men feel with their accepted roles, Bly argues that these problems stem from the lack of initiation ceremonies, which help to separate boys from their mothers and induct them into manhood in many societies. He builds an elaborate metaphor based on the Grimm fairy tale "Iron John" around this theory, supporting it with bits of poetry, mythology, archeology, anthropology (much of it taken out of context), his experiences at men's groups and his own limping verses. With a convert's zeal, he presents his initiatory gospel as the simplistic solution to a host of complex problems. Unfortunately, Bly ignores the fact that initiation rituals generally have more than psychological significance. These rites are designed to teach young men survival skills--hunting, fashioning weapons, enduring privation--that have no relevance to life in 20th-Century America. Instead of encouraging men to bang drums in the forest or chip arrowheads, Bly should consider preparing an initiation ceremony that would teach his New Age readers skills that would be useful in their daily lives: how to operate a cappuccino machine, basic BMW repairs, how to behave in a health club . . .

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