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Sharp jabs at a soft nation

US Guys The True and Twisted Mind of the American Man Charlie LeDuff Penguin Press: 242 pp., $25.95

February 11, 2007|Matthew Price | Matthew Price is a journalist and critic in New York.

CHARLIE LeDUFF likes characters, and the more blue-collar, the better; no fancy folk for him. His first book, "Work and Other Sins," a collection of sketches culled from pieces he wrote for the New York Times (where he is a reporter), showcased a parade of New York doormen, gamblers, car salesmen, bigmouths and daydreamers.

Clearly influenced by the late New Yorker writer Joseph Mitchell, LeDuff went heavy on old-time Big Apple flavor. Here's a taste: "Pete Sanseli is an East Side barber, the coiffeur to titans of industry, lawyers, poets, playwrights and some minor journalists. He has good hands constructed of long, fine bones, and when they are at work, his scissors make a 'tick-a-tack' sound of a teletype machine." This is charming in small doses but curdles at book length.

Similar problems of style mar his new book, "US Guys," an amped-up look at what he calls "the true and twisted mind of the American man." This time around, extending his range to testosterone-fueled antics around the country, LeDuff channels Tom Wolfe and George Plimpton to varying effect. Like the work of Wolfe and Plimpton, these stories are as much about LeDuff as they are about his subjects. And his staccato riffs on the nation's current predicament get really annoying: "The country's adrift. Uneasy. Broke. Making less."

In "US Guys," LeDuff zigs and zags across the Lower 48, from Oklahoma to Montana, from Oregon to Florida, on the trail of American manhood -- and himself. He finds a lot of angst out there, anxiety about immigration, the economy, about having a purpose in life. "[L]ooking back," he writes, "this was a search for the angry, forgotten middling America from where I come." LeDuff is angry all right -- he'd just as soon flip you the bird as shake your hand. (If we ever meet, I half expect him to deck me.) He may have a slender frame, as he'll remind you, but LeDuff sports a heavyweight attitude. He has something to prove, though I'm not exactly sure what.

A practitioner of what you might call knucklehead journalism, LeDuff likes to be in the mix and to mix it up. A journey to Oakland takes him to the East Bay Rats bikers club, whose members "like to drink, blow things up and throw parties where the central amusement is fighting." LeDuff makes himself right at home among the rabble. A band apart, the Rats are "perhaps the most complete-incomplete men there are": Knocking each other's blocks off provides an existential oomph. He challenges the biggest dude of the bunch ("Big Mike, the barefoot behemoth, the ultimate man whom nobody wanted to try") to a fight -- and loses, of course. But losing is beside the point. For him, it's all about staying "strong despite the weaknesses." This is the ultimate validation, a sign of authenticity.

LeDuff is fascinated by the beaten-down and the second-rate. In Amarillo, Texas, he joins a semiprofessional football team -- the Dusters -- stocked with also-rans, "dudes grasping at the frayed end of a rope of hope, a single step from obsolescence." This is no insult; these men have their dream and are living it, no matter how far from the NFL they are. Ever the gamer (a la Plimpton in "Paper Lion"), he gets himself on the team but not just to play. The team, made up of white, Latino and black athletes, becomes a laboratory of sorts as LeDuff stirs "the racial witch's brew." Slurs fly and the author hopes to learn something about race in America. It's a somewhat uneasy process -- there are tensions between white and black players -- but LeDuff manages to get two of the antagonists to shake hands.

I'm not sure we learn much from this encounter; LeDuff is a hit-or-miss sociologist. Still, he's adventurous and wants to go beyond conventional ideas of masculinity. One excursion takes him to Oklahoma City and a gay rodeo championship. LeDuff being LeDuff, he takes part in a bull-riding event dressed in full drag, although he's anxious to tell us he's "straight as an arrow." He pals around with Baby Boy Miller, "the gay buckaroo," and underscores the point that, yes, America, there are gay people in the heartland.

LeDuff fancies himself a tolerant, accepting fellow, but his equanimity has its limits; he can fly off the handle and it's fun to watch. Venturing into "the sandbox of counterculture" (not exclusively a male preserve), he checks out the Burning Man festival in Nevada. He's appalled by the posturing, the consumerism masquerading as faux enlightenment: "Destruction as an artistic movement; let us call it Nouveau Nihilism." He's not buying it. His scorn is withering: "[F]orty thousand freaks scream without moving their mouths. Forty thousand stray dogs pissing all over the place." He finds not an ounce of authenticity.

But LeDuff finds the heart of fakeness back in his old stamping ground, New York, "capital of glam and soft-work-for-a-living." He goes there to investigate male beauty and is even more appalled. Attempting to become a male model, he stops by the now-defunct Cargo magazine, a kind of cut-rate GQ. The fashion industry is trying to make men soft, LeDuff observes: "They are creating a whole subgenus. The alpha-pansy." It's pretty amusing watching him go through the motions: He gets a facial, a manicure, a haircut, tries to find in himself "the girlish alter ego that lurks underneath the mustache of every man." Needless to say, he doesn't. All this stuff is ruining New York, he gripes. The city has become "self-satisfied, self-centered and self-important."

LeDuff is unsparing, if hilarious. Still, the fashion world is an easy target. He's better off looking elsewhere for us guys. *

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