I admit that when I heard about Dorianne Laux’s new book, The Book of Men, my first thought was that I hoped the book wasn’t just a book about men. It is.
Then I hoped that it wasn’t a book about famous men like Bob Dylan and Mick Jagger and the Beatles. It’s that too.
Collections that focus too much on one segment of the narrator’s life tend to become self-indulgent — no one wants to hear about all the guys (or girls, or both) you’ve slept with. Laundry list books are dreary.
Even more difficult is writing about pop culture figures so ingrained in the public consciousness that it’s nearly impossible to add anything new to the conversation. What more can Laux possibly have to say about the Beatles?
But Laux is no graduate program newbie and she generally manages to overcome the natural hurdles involved with thematic collections. She does not fare as well, however, when writing about famous men. More on that later; first to the theme.
The Book of Men is indeed a collection of profiles, observations, character studies and investigations by Laux into her own world of men. From lovers to brothers, through love letters and personal insights, Laux’s men run the gamut from teenage dates to military men in the bus terminal.
Those moments, of personal or anonymous investigations, work mainly because Laux is able to draw out deeper, more universal meanings from the confrontations. In “Staff Sgt. Metz” she turns a chance meeting with a soldier into a meditation on her brother’s service in Vietnam and how that affected her own life beliefs: “I don’t believe in anything anymore / god country, money or love. / All that matters to me now / is his life, the body so perfectly made.”
In a deeply raw poem called “Second Chances” the narrator addresses men “whom I have not met” and asks them not to take advantage of her niece who is suffering from heroin addiction.
The poems about famous men are less engaging, mostly because they are about famous men. Mick Jagger’s old- man theatrics on stage, the Beatles breaking up and a poem about Bob Dylan, written in the same “deep” manner as Dylan’s own early music, just drag the whole endeavor down.
The worst is a poem about Superman dying from some kind of Kryptonite cancer and having to get stoned to ease the pain: “It’s 2010 and the doctors have given him / another year in Metropolis. Another year / in paradise when he’s high, another year / in hell when he’s not.” It’s like the poem is written by her 13-year-old grandson. Superman just does not work as a metaphor for old age or declining virility.
There are only a half dozen dudes, though, and the rest of the collection holds together pleasantly, and sometimes marvelously. The Book of Men is not Laux’s best, but it will do until her next collection, Awake, is released.
B —Dan Szczesny