In 1990, Robert Bly’s Iron John: A Book About Men spent 62 weeks on The New York Times bestseller list. Spurring a “men’s movement,” it also spawned parodies of dudes dancing around fires, drumming, and “reclaiming” their emotional core. While I appreciate Bly, a good poet, and his attempt to tie masculinity to the folkloric tradition, his book felt superficial, a little too willing to avoid grappling with the definition of masculinity.
Simply put, masculinity has a troubled history that needs more than redefinition.
Simply put, masculinity has a troubled history that needs more than redefinition. It needs to be cleansed, exorcised so that modern men can move on.
Thus, it was with a little trepidation that I cracked Carlos Andrés Gómez’ Man Up, released Thursday, Sept. 27. Gómez, who like Bly is a poet, draws on his own history to paint a disturbing picture of what it means to be a man now. He weaves poignant examples from his own life growing up, as the outsider bouncing from one school to the next, then as a smart, good-looking urbanite. He steered clear of the stereotypical sex-starved male role models that society seems to revere.
Gómez proposes that a man is not defined as the breadwinner, the father figure, the protector, the knight-in-shining-armor.
His story borders on too much information, yet these graphic and honest accounts also highlight a sensitive young man who’s not willing to just wall off his emotions and relegate them to sports or treating women as objects that have a limited shelf life. He wants something more.
As evidenced by the fact that he is critical of his own decision-making, he suggests that society still does not have an easy answer for what it means to be a modern man. Gómez proposes that a man is not defined as the breadwinner, the father figure, the protector, the knight-in-shining-armor. Though men may not process the world the same way as women, he indicates it does not mean that they can’t live a full emotional life.
What he’s aiming to achieve in this book is the recognition of differences without imposing any sort of hierarchical judgment. Men are not better or worse, but different. It’s a delicate balance and one that is rarely struck just right because society is still so infatuated with objectification. He pulls it off because he’s willing to look at his life critically.
Having heard Gómez read before, the strongest parts of the book were the poems that introduce each chapter, with links to the actual performances. While perhaps a bit too rooted in self-portraiture to dominate the charts like Bly’s earlier work, Gómez clearly brings something to the conversation. Grounded in personal narrative, the story flushes out a reluctant artist who’s willing to shine a light into the dark corners of our collective imagination.
We may not want to dance around a campfire afterwards, but we will certainly revisit some of our own screwed-up coming-of-age decisions, and perhaps do more than “crack the code” but rewrite it all together.