Friday 21 October 2016
Review by Erik Raschke of "Two Syllable Men" by John McCaffrey
After exploring white middle-aged dystopia with his first novel, The Book of Ash, McCaffrey’s new collection or novel or linked-shorts, Two Syllable Men, has brought us to a more staid environment, where everyday men are confused and dazed by the simple complexities of modern life. They are the button-down dorks, lost to NPR or sports-radio, who absently and unwittingly tail-gate in their minivans or rusting Saturns. They are former Ross Perot supporters and now angst-ridden libertarians who might quietly, secretly smile at Trump’s bluster, but would never vote for the man. They are the lost white man we read so much leading up to the election, but unlike Trump supporters, they are the kind of white men who are neither loud nor aggressive and thus have become more or less invisible. They privately struggle and scramble against the feminization of their lives. They are not afraid of sports. They coddle instead of cling to the specter of male-hood.
Each chapter in Two Syllable Men is named after a different male, each full of doubts, but specifically in their own way. There is Byron, who while hesitating before kissing a girl, thinks about his ex: “His wife, before they split up, often criticized him for being too passive, accusing him of being a counterpuncher in life, someone who reacted rather than initiated. He remembered their first date, when he asked if he could kiss her, and she surprised him with an angry response, explaining that a man never asked to kiss a woman, he just did it.”
In the case of Graham, after many desperate dating attempts, he meets a basketball player, Talia: “She was also an English Major. When I asked her favourite author she didn’t hesitate: ‘Somerset Maugham.’ She spoke for an hour straight about his work. I found her passion erotic and suggested we go somewhere more private to talk. She must have sensed my real purpose because she told me she had a rule never to have sex with a man until he watched her play basketball.”
There’s Herman who “had gout and his doctor recommended hot yoga as a cure.” The story is an exercise in mental contortionism and perseverance as the yoga instructor, Carlos, dishes worthless platitudes like, “You can’t get anywhere in life without starting somewhere,” that leave Herman breathlessly exasperated and women yoga-attendees swooning.
The diffraction of short story collections can often be a struggle if the context and subjects vary. The thread in MacCaffrey’s stories hold, as it winds from one male to another. Although characters' personalities sometimes blur, their collective anxiety comes to a repeated crescendo as if these two syllable men were some consciously connected tribe dancing to a prayer ritual of what social therapists refer to as “precarious manhood.” McCaffrey’s characters are forever in conflict with the impending loss of manhood and it is within that struggle we find a very prescient humanity.
About the reviewer
Erik Raschke is an American author living in Amsterdam for the past seven years. His last novel, The Book of Samuel, was published by St. Martin's Press in 2009 and translated into Italian and nominated for the Printz award. He received an M.A. in Creative Writing from the City College of New York and his short stories have been published in, among others, Guernica, Chelsea, Per Contra, Ararat, Reading Room, Tijdschrift Ei, Carver.nu, Promethean, 5-trope. His essays and articles have appeared in The New York Times, Hazlitt, Buzzfeed, The Denver Post, Het Parool, De Volkskrant and many others. You can see more of his work at www.erikraschke.com.