Men's lives views jaunty and academic

September 03, 1993|By Ann Egerton | Ann Egerton,Contributing Writer

In these twitchy times, the rules of conduct between men and women seem to change about once a week. Many writers are cashing in on the confusion and creating new guidelines or offering fresh interpretations of the battle of the sexes. Here are two more offerings, one light and humorous, but with a strong undercurrent of common sense; and the second academic and layered with literary and historical allusion.

"The Modern Man's Guide to Modern Women" is a collection of essays by former Baltimorean Denis Boyles, most written for -- heaven help us -- Playboy, and sometimes it's obvious who his first audience was. For instance, when talking about the 10 best places to meet a woman, he suggests restaurants, explaining, "Waitresses are made to be wed. There is something absolutely compelling about a good looking woman coming at you with plenty of good food in both hands."

Mr. Boyles, who was one of the authors of "The Modern Man's Guide to Life," is not above a bit of sexism, but he also is quite funny and decent, reminding us that the primary responsibility of a husband and father is to support his children. Somewhere along the way, he notes, the sexual revolution transformed guiltless sex into irresponsible sex, with many unsupported children the innocent victims. Boys may be boys, but when they sire a child, they must be men.

Along the same refreshingly old-fashioned lines, Mr. Boyles admonishes men never to hit a woman, and while acknowledging that the temptations of cheating are rampant, he argues that not only is it never worth the trouble, but you'll never get away with it, either.

Don't be fooled by the jaunty, locker-room tone of this book; Mr. Boyles makes serious arguments for moral, upstanding behavior he chronicles modern love and courtship, romance in the workplace, cohabitation (which, he warns, "is to a peninsula as marriage is to an island"), feminism, breaking up and daughters.

He has a good time with the feminist movement of the 1960s: "Feminism's golden years, from 1966 to 1972 . . . were the best years to be young, single and male in the history of the world, since not only were there an unparalleled number of young, unsupervised women around . . . but there was also a surplus of marijuana, some pretty good music, and a red-hot sexual revolution." What happened to the movement? he asks. The National Organization for Women has only 280,000 members -- fewer than the Future Homemakers of America; indeed, there are more women who subscribe to Playboy than there are members of NOW.

Mr. Boyles answers that men have distorted the feminist movement in dumping their responsibilities (child support, especially) onto the shoulders of a lot of exhausted and increasingly angry women, and have abdicated their manhood. To be more fair, Mr. Boyles might have more clearly addressed the increased need for two incomes in most families; that is, how, over the course of the past 25 years, we were all caught with our checkbooks down -- you know, the money thing.

In "A Time of Fallen Heroes," psychotherapists William Betcher and William Pollack conjure up figures from Greek and Roman myth and tragedy and the Bible. They study Freud's and Jung's interpretations, those of contemporary sociologists and of students of mythical and modern behavior, such as Joseph Campbell and Robert Bly. They discuss case histories from their own practices to illustrate the breaches in a man's psyche.

This book, though, really is a well-researched (the bibliography is nearly 14 pages long) psychology textbook whose message is that today's man seems to deny his limitations, death and the inevitability of loss, and that it is time to redeem himself. Ancient mythical figures, such as Oedipus, Achilles, Odysseus, Telemachus (who was cut off from his father) and the frightenly powerful Earth Mother are still pertinent because their stories are archetypal and repeatedly echoed in many present-day male personalities and histories.

For instance, the authors suggest that "today's grown-up sons of absent fathers . . . are wandering like Odysseus," and that this is a cause of women's anger. The male's increased separateness from home and family during the 19th and 20th centuries, his increased insecurity as he struggles with appropriate, non-violent ways to express anger, and competition from "the new woman" have brought about another condition -- shame. An important difference between these two books is that Mr. Boyles believes that the distortion of feminism has resulted in men's having no shame; whereas the authors of "In a Time of Fallen Heroes" feel that men are paralyzed by it.

The chapters on sex and on sports are multi-layered. Men can look at sex "as a score card," or "as a ritual, in which . . . they lose themselves at play." Sports are "an aphrodisiac for flagging masculine egos" and man's "best chance to be a hero"; moreover, in echoing boyhood, they "offer hope" and "they provide a form of brotherhood."

Most important, they are about the recognition of limits. This recognition, quite differently expressed, is a common theme of these two books. Each puts the onus of responsibility for self-evaluation and re-creation on the male of the species.

BOOK REVIEW

Title: "The Modern Man's Guide to Modern Women"

Author: Denis Boyles

Publisher: Harper Perennial

Length, price: 169 pages, $16 (paperback)

BOOK REVIEW

Title: "In a Time of Fallen Heroes: The Recreation of Masculinity"

Authors: William Betcher and William Pollack

Publisher: Atheneum

Length, price: 266 pages, $22.50

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