Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The Good Men Project: Real Stories from the Front Lines of Modern Manhood

Edited by James Houghton, Larry Bean and Tom Matlack

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

  • Paperback: 268 pages
  • Publisher: Good Men Foundation; 1St Edition
    (September 8, 2009)
  • Price: $14.99
  • ISBN-10: 0615316743
  • ISBN-13:

Ask most any single woman in her second half of life and she will tell you: a good man is exceedingly hard to find. So, why is that? And just what is a good man? Bad boys are for adolescent girls, for those who are yet too emotionally immature to recognize the lasting value of goodness, and yes, that goodness is about as sexy as it comes. If the good guy finishes last, it is only because once a woman meets one, she holds on. There is no need for anyone to come after him.

This collection of essays isn’t about what women think about good men, however, or how women define goodness in a man. It is about what men think about being a good man. And rightly so, because being a good man begins with the man himself, with his taking more than a moment of introspection to consider what this means. Editor James Houghton, in fact, writes that just asking the question is the seed of being a good man.

As one of the editors, Tom Matlack, states in the prologue—“manhood is at a crossroads in America.” Companion editor James Houghton writes in his prologue: “Might there be something meaningful in gathering a diverse group of men to write essays about difficult or challenging times in their lives and what they had learned from those experiences? Though I had nothing but anecdotal evidence to draw upon, it seemed that the men of our generation spend a lot of time struggling to balance the competing interests of achieving professional success and being good husbands and partners and fathers and sons. And unlike women, who are much better socialized to talk about how these same pressures affect them, we tend to keep those burdens to ourselves. While the stereotype of men retreating to their cave is not new, perhaps if a group of men wrote compelling, well-crafted stories about their lives, other men might recognize a little of themselves in those stories and take comfort in their shared humanity.”

Houghton goes on to say that the book was turned down by some 50 publishers, mainly for the reason that none of them believed men were interested in reading a book written by other men. Sad. One does wonder what the readership demographic might be, male or female, but in the end, it probably matters little. Asking the question seems an excellent beginning, and that these three editors have started this ball rollilng can only be commended. It begins with a thought.

The book is divided into four sections. Essays are grouped under Fathers, Sons, Husbands, and Workers. It is a grouping as good as any, I suppose, although Husbands might have been widened to include mates of all kinds and not just spouses. Heck, there are times that a woman’s best friend is an ex-spouse. Indeed, a section simply entitled Friends might have opened up an interesting door. Personally, I can vouch for finding the most good men under this category.

Reading through this collection of essays, the level of quality in story and style is as changeable as one might expect with so many different authors. Some stories will engage more than others. In many, the concept of goodness is self-evident, while others can leave the reader wondering … where was the goodness in this dude? Out of the four sections, Husbands seems the weakest, while Fathers and Sons dig the deepest into male emotion. These appear to be the roles that touch men the most, and at opposing arcs of the same cycle, being sons and becoming fathers. One suspects that for many men, becoming a father is the one time that society accepts softness, even tears, and a gentle touch without questioning masculinity. Becoming a father does seem to bring out the very best in many men, and society sanctions this, making it easier to be a good man in this category.

Notable are several essays that explore the equation we seem to almost force on boys and men—that of aggression going hand-in-hand with masculinity. Authors Steve Almond and Kent George explore the expectation of aggression in boys and men, and what’s a gentler soul to do? A good man surely asks if there is a better way to solve problems or to succeed in life than by the use of fists (and warfare).

Author John Sheehy writes about being able to say and mean the words “I love you,” and writes convincingly about how difficult it is for a man to do so, in this case, to his father. It is a moving piece.

Then, there are some essays that leave one wondering, huh? How is this relevant? Jesse Kornbluth’s “Sex and Drugs Made Me a Man” is a puzzling essay about sex and drugs that fit more of the male stereotype than not, and what any of his sex and drug experience, wounding more than healing, has to do with being a good man, well, who knows. Essays by Cary Wong and Regie O’Hare Gibson also leave one shrugging. Well enough written, but seem to be more padding for space than about good men.

Yet there are those golden stars in the collection, too. “Blood-Spattered” by Julio Medina is worth the price of the book—which, by the way, is donating proceeds from book sales to organizations helping at-risk boys. Medina writes with raw honesty about his life in prison. He is as hard as men get, tough and gritty-hearted, afraid of nothing, if perhaps only the brutality of fellow convicts. But then, not even that. Watching a fellow convict go down in a prison fight, instead of walking by to preserve his own safety under that code of prisoners, Medina stops to help. The result of that moment is a metamorphosis of a bad man into a good man, of a heart that had its goodness hidden under many layers of scarring into the heart of a hero. One moment became a life cause, and Julio Medina today leads an organization, Exodus Transitional Community, helping inmates transition back into good men.  I spent some time exploring his site, and thought that the next book I would like to read on this topic of good men might very well be an autobiography of Julio Medina.

All in all, this is a good book asking a good question and written by more than a few good men. It’s a good start, and we can only hope that good men will find themselves ever more appreciated in a society that, as Matlack observes, is at a crossroads for men seeking guidelines for how to live lives that matter.

To learn more about The Good Men Project, read The Smoking Poet's A Good Cause.

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