I've been very busy this week failing to complete a piece commissioned by Jonathan Derbyshire for a book he's editing for Time Out. My task is to write a thousand words on the best books about men and masculinity. Choosing non-fiction ones has been quite easy: I've just ignored all the boring old evolutionary psychology stuff, the ones that insist genes, hormones and 'hard-wiring' explain everything and the "feminists-have-gone-too-far" whinge tomes and selected the handful of sane works that remain. Picking fiction, though, has proved much harder. After all, most novels are about men and masculinity one way or another including, by implication, those that are at pains to exclude them. And because, of course, men vary no one type of depiction of maleness can be said to be definitive. Logically, then, I'm aiming for a wide range of novels with skilfully-rendered male characters at their core. Among these will be the guy confessing here.
"My little boy is having a difficult time of it in school this year, in gym, in math, and in classes stressing public speaking. And just about everywhere else, it seems. (At home with me. My wife. My daughter. My boy seems to be having a difficult time of it in school every year now when the new term starts, but each year seems to grow worse. He is, I'm afraid, starting to 'let me down.')
He hates gym and public speaking. He used to like gym (He never liked public speaking.) Now he dreads gym, with its incessant regimen of exercises that he cannot perform well: chinning, push-ups, rope-climbing, and tumbling. He abhors rope-climbing, chinning and push-ups and is stricken almost speechless (you can almost see that bulbous, leaden lump jamming his throat) by his reluctance even to talk about them (as though even to mention his hatred of these ridiculous gymnastic demonstrations would be to violate some clandestine taboo surrounding them and to be sentenced to perform them awkwardly and feebly, with everyone watching, still one more time). My boy hates Forgione, the squat, barrel-chested, simian gym teacher with forests of black, wiry hair curling out all over him everywhere, even through the weave of his white T-shirt, except on his head, who can break me in two with his bare hands if he ever decided he wanted to, and who tries to be helpful and encouraging to my frightened little boy in his blunt, domineering, primitive way and only succeeds in frightening him further.
'He doesn't have a good competitive spirit,' Forgione asserts to me, complainingly. 'He lacks a true will to win.'
'I don't have one either Mr Forgione,' I reply to him tamely, in an effort to get on his good side. 'Maybe he gets it from me.'
'That can't be true, Mr Slocum,' Forgione says, 'Everybody's got a competitive spirit.'
'Then why doesn't he?'
'That's what I mean,' says Forgione."
From Something Happened, by Joseph Heller.