Writer and journalist Thomas Page McBee published his first book of narrative nonfiction, Man Alive: A True Story of Violence, Forgiveness and Becoming a Man, almost exactly four years ago, in September of 2014. His second, Amateur: A True Story About What Makes A Man, which derives from a long narrative piece McBee wrote for Quartz in 2016, is due this month. Set mostly between 2014 and 2016, the text picks up more or less where Man Alive left off—the author is still dealing with the multilayered trauma of his stepfather’s sexual abuse, a near-death experience involving a gunman in Oakland, the strange fact of his post-transition privilege as a white man, and, more generally, how to be or become a good man. In Amateur, however, McBee’s specific focus is not his transition, but rather the familiar, even over-explored relation of boxing to masculinity. The author endeavors not only to experience that relation firsthand by learning to box and competing in an amateur bout, but also to take it apart, look at its pieces, and extract from it what he finds beneficial—while leaving behind what is malignant. The result is a fairly conventional but effective text. It does not reach new or unexpected conclusions about masculinity but ably reinforces old and relevant ones.
The bulk of Amateur follows McBee as he prepares for a Madison Square Garden charity fight arranged by the organization Haymakers for Hope. While the event is normally an opportunity for hedge fund managers, bankers, and their ilk to punch each other in the face while raising money for cancer research, McBee manages to finagle his way into the lineup thanks to an acquaintance who sits on the Haymakers board. At first, McBee is predictably very bad at boxing, but over the course of a few months, he improves until at last he is ready mentally and physically to confront his opponent, a man named Eric who weighs seventeen pounds more than McBee’s 135. (In case you were unsure, that is a lot.)
Over the course of the book, McBee frequently flashes back to scenes from his life that inform his present and the narrative he has built around masculinity. Frequently he remembers his mother’s sudden death at age sixty-nine, which occurred approximately nine months before he began training. He recalls her words—she once told him that he had “a golden core.” He elaborates on her struggles against sexism as a manager for GE in a time when female managers were few and far between. And he chronicles her many unlikely accomplishments, some of them made possible by “good” men who stood up or vouched for her. Elsewhere he tells the reader how dating women changed for him post-transition and how strange it has been to visibly embody the sort of masculinity that he feared for most of his life (even as he also found himself attracted to it).
Becoming is central to McBee’s books, articles, and interviews; becoming is processual, work that is never finished. In Amateur, McBee ponders how he can become a good man and embody a non-toxic masculinity. To the author, this is an especially vexing problem because his first exposure to masculinity was through his stepfather, both a child molester and a capable performer of conventional American masculinity. Boxing, of course, has produced its own exemplars of sad, violent maleness, perhaps most notably Mike Tyson, whose career and psyche fascinate the author and some of his boxing friends. The gunman in Oakland, who only decided not to kill McBee after hearing his high, pre-testosterone voice, serves as yet another icon of toxicity. When McBee searches for better examples of masculinity to follow, he finds them insufficient. Jess, McBee’s girlfriend, advises him that “instead of looking for the men you want to be, you need to face your worst fears about who you are.” In other words, to become a good man, McBee must look inward and face his demons.
The author elaborates on Jess’s words a few pages later when he connects them to psychoanalyst Carl Jung’s post-World War II explanation of evil: “He believed that ostracizing any aspect of the human experience, however ugly, created a ‘shadow’ of our rejected bits that we drag behind us. If we do not see that the shadow belongs to us, we project it onto others, both individually and as a culture. To face and own what most disturbs you about yourself, Jung believed, is one of the central moral tasks of being human.” Across more than 200 pages, the book takes pains to make the point that it is a story not only of confronting and combatting oneself (and, obviously, one’s opponent across the ring) but also about embracing and loving oneself in a way that does not breed violence, shame, or the sort of subjectivity capable of molesting a child or committing murder.
Amateur’s central narrative tends to be more compelling than its direct analyses of normative American masculinity, which can feel parbaked by comparison. This is not to say that the research McBee incorporates isn’t interesting. For example, in a discussion of the concept of “real men” he explains that race historian Nell Irvin Painter’s The History of White People “explores how white men invented race and, in doing so, made whiteness synonymous with the masculine ideal.” According to Painter’s book, the category of the “real man” has not only been historically racist and racialized, but also, in McBee’s words, “nostalgically classist”—men as far back as Julius Caesar “fawned over the warrior-like qualities of [their] ‘uncivilized’ rural neighbors.” To my mind, this information is intrinsically interesting; it leaves me wanting to know more about Painter’s research and ready to learn how McBee will use Painter’s work as an analytic tool to mine the intersections of contemporary American masculinity, racism, and otherizing discourses. That is not, however, what happens. Instead, McBee moves abruptly back to the gym and to other views on what makes a “real man,” e.g., “Do not be ‘like a woman.’ Do not be ‘like a gay man.’” The author makes a habit of introducing fascinating ideas derived from what appears to be extensive research and interviews only to scoot too quickly along to something else, be it another angle on the topic at hand or another strand of his story altogether. Occasionally the insights McBee gleans from his experts are hardly insights at all. From psychology professor Dacher Keltner, he learns that “the more power we have, the more we are inclined to behave badly.” Duh? Balancing narrative and research in a book such as Amateur is inherently tricky, and some readers will be happy with McBee’s arrangement. Others will wish that either the story had less informational accompaniment or the research and analysis had been allotted more pages.
McBee might also have spared a few pages for humor. His voice in Amateur is intensely earnest, and he tends to take American masculinity on its own terms, as a legitimate way of being in the world. He does not laugh at it. It is not something he pokes fun at. And yet masculinity is so easy to laugh at. It is so easy to poke fun at. It has been so dominant culturally for so long that it is always already a parody of itself. For many people, pointing out normative masculinity’s absurdities and cackling is a means of resistance and a necessary practice of self care. Doing so in Amateur would not have curtailed McBee’s ability to empathize with his subjects but would have enlivened the prose and contributed a measure of tonal variation to the text.
McBee spends as much time training to be a better man as he does to be a better boxer. In a chapter titled “Am I A Sexist?,” McBee quickly resolves the matter at hand: “The question wasn’t if I was sexist, but how.” Even if he can remember in fine detail how he was treated in what he calls his “Before body,” he cannot help but enact quotidian sexism around his workplace and in his relationships. “As I assessed myself honestly,” he writes, “I saw the many subtle ways that I took men just a little more seriously. I was quicker to respond to their emails and messages, more concerned with their perceptions, and more swayed by their arguments.” The author takes a “clinical” approach to correcting his biases, documenting how often he interrupts coworkers and whom he interrupts, and discovers that he speaks over women three times as often as men. If boxing is McBee’s way of experiencing and, in a way, embodying an extreme form of heteronormative masculinity firsthand, his efforts at rigorous self-study and self-improvement are a means of undoing the most discriminatory elements of his brand of masculinity. They are one way in which he faces and owns “those aspects of himself that most disturb him.”
McBee asks questions in all his chapter titles, e.g., “Why Am I Doing This?,” “Am I A Real Man?,” “Am I Passing?,” “What If I Fail?,” Why Do Men Fight?” He goes on to answer the questions by drawing from both his personal experiences and research and interviews he conducted for the book and the article that preceded it. The question-and-answer format demonstrates McBee’s commitment to becoming the sort of man who asks questions in work meetings, allows himself to be vulnerable in his relationships, and pays attention to the ways his privilege (as a white, cis-passing trans man) affects his interactions with colleagues, family, and other amateur fighters.
Amateur as a whole is, in effect, the culmination of McBee’s process of self-analysis, behavioral modification, and self-acceptance. It is unfailingly humble, sincere, and clear-eyed. His Acknowledgement spans almost three pages. The overall style is less lithe, aggressive, and kinetic than in the long-form article on which it is based—though sometimes to its detriment. The other side of clear-eyed is workmanlike, an adjective that accurately describes a few of McBee’s structural signpost sentences and transitions between sections. Writing about America’s masculinity crisis: “It wasn’t until much later, and hours of interviews with the leading historians, neuroscientists, and sociologists in their fields, that I confirmed just how much my body—and yours—was at stake.” McBee also has a tendency to splotch his prose with canned phrases. After receiving affirmation in the locker room about the prospect of his charity bout: “I had a fight! I walked all the way home that night, thirty blocks, like the king of New York.”
No matter how it is written out, the idea that one must “face one’s demons” in order to change oneself is not, on the face of it, captivating in and of itself. Whether it is spelled out explicitly (as it is in Amateur) or demonstrated narratively (as it also is in Amateur), the cliché remains a cliché. To make this cliché and others more palatable, McBee imbues them with the specific details of his life and struggles. More importantly, he gifts the reader his earnest belief in the narrative legitimacy of clichés. If he, McBee, has experienced them as true, real, and relevant, then they are so. If they are clichés, they are clichés for a reason, or so the logic goes. In other words, Amateur is admirably sincere, its reliance on well-worn narrativizations of life more often comforting than off-putting.
McBee ends the book atop a rental car in the California desert. Two coyotes pass him but turn back. “Sure, I was scared a little,” McBee writes, “but as we looked at one another I unbuttoned my shirt and faced whatever was to come, with my invented chest and arms wide-open.” His last image ranks among the book’s strongest; it distils Amateur’s finest quality into a sentence. It is un-self-consciously hopeful without being pat or precious.