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The Perfect Man for This Writing Job May Be a Woman

June 03, 1993|BOB SIPCHEN

Afew years back, a bunch of male novelists wrote books from the female perspective, making a bunch of fem lit crits mad as hell: Who do these men think they are to try to write from a woman's viewpoint?

In the June Esquire, Lynn Darling doesn't quite attempt to enter her male protagonist's consciousness, but she does presume to get awfully darn close.

Thing is, men as a rule just aren't very good at writing about what it means to be a man. So, if a truly perceptive woman wants to do it, hey, no problem.

And Darling's nonfiction yarn--"Single White Male, Seeks Clue"--is perceptive as all get-out.

Darling's story is about 30-year-old John Talbot, a straight white male who finds himself adrift in a shifting world where "women have more confidence. Gay men have more style. Everyone else has the right to be angry, and they are all angry with you."

Talbot moved from upper middle-class New Jersey to New York City in 1986, the year before the stock market crashed, deflating macho Bush-Yuppie arrogance.

So the scene is set for Darling's intricate exploration of a young male psyche in the '90s.

Talbot always "loved women. He loved working for them, and with them, loved confiding in them, loved their confidences."

But still, he is confused by the new world in which they are his equals and in which so many of the old values have been discarded to make room.

In hopes of finding a quiet niche in which his role remains unambiguous, Talbot takes up boxing at a "tattered temple of lost-and-found masculinity," the Times Square Gym.

Here, old fashioned boxers teach him about a world unencumbered by delicate layers of meaning, where "you have to know how to give the look that says that you are not the patsy here."

As he acclimates himself to this place, he has only one unsettling moment: When he shows up to box one Saturday to find the place thick with young white-collar men who look much like him--a class from the Learning Annex.

While pretending to box, the Annex boys, "the patty cakes" he decides, are really just doing aerobics. He's relieved and eventually discovers his true self among the old school pugilists.

That self-awareness leads to what may be his first mutually accepting, non-neurotic relationship with a woman.

Hemingway would have told this tale straight away, all sweat and hard fast jabs. He'd have let all the crap about manhood seep in obliquely.

Darling watches Talbot enter the ring, then confidently explains the meaning of his awkward punches.

Whether readers accept Darling's belief that we have reached "the evening of the American male in fin-de-siecle America," they'll probably agree that her woman's touch offers fine insight into this new era.

Required Reading

* "Save the Earth" is an original screenplay, concocted by the folks at Harper's as the impetus for a "Forum."

The idea is that films today are "formulaic, by-the-numbers, cliche-ridden, high-concept garbage." So Hollywood's new auteurs are its marketers.

This forum brings four publicists and advertising types together to turn Harper's own "megabudget, environmentally correct rain-forest love story" into a runaway hit.

Whereas the old filmmakers might have talked about character development and camera angles, these folks discuss a blitz of slam-bang teaser trailers, "Save the Earth" pinball machines, fast-food tie-ins, MTV contests, press junkets, trumped-up, cause-oriented "Save the Earth" coalitions, concerned stars testifying before Congress, a well-timed soundtrack and a glitzy, gimmicky premiere.

Sound like summer?

* What if all that land getting bulldozed in Ventura, Orange and San Bernardino counties was rain forest or old growth redwoods instead of dusty chaparral?

The May-June Audubon looks at what happens as Florida begins to view scrub with a respect most environmentalists reserve for more picturesque landscapes.

Florida's scrub land is different than California's, but the lesson resonates. Tree huggers, take note: Bland appearance aside, the scrub is a diverse ecosystem with inherent value as well as the potential to benefit humanity with new drugs and scientific information.

* Leonard Jeffries was removed as chair of the City University of New York's Black Studies Department for spouting anti-Semitic views. The university replaced Jeffries with Edmund Gordon, former head of African and Afro-American Studies at Yale.

In mid-May, a federal jury argued that Jeffries' removal violated his First Amendment rights. Will he get his job back?

More than mere academic standing rests on that question, says James Traub in the June 7 New Yorker.

Traub says Jeffries and Gordon represent the extremes in a debate not only over black studies but also about the status of black intellectuals in American life.

Gordon, Traub writes with unabashed bias, is a "scholars' scholar" who considered W. E. B. DuBois his mentor and helped found the nation's Head Start program.

Traub portrays Jeffries as an anti-intellectual who bullies students with diatribes on such crackpot beliefs as the notion that whites are an uncreative "ice people" and blacks a warm and expressive "sun people."

"Jeffries is an extremist," he says, "but he lives in a world sympathetic to extremism--or, at any rate, unwilling to repudiate it."

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