"What I wanted after college was a job and my own apartment, but what I needed was a good comeuppance, and that's what I got." So starts Lads, a memoir by Dave Itzkoff.
Advertised as an account of the search for manhood (and, since written by a former editor at Maxim magazine, hints at insights unavailable in The Official Boy Scout Handbook), Lads actually is most compelling as the story of the author's search for friendship. Mark Itzkoff was looking for friends, and he'd come to the wrong place.
It's perhaps strange to mention propriety advice columnist Miss Manners at this juncture, in a review of a book that includes the sentence, "I don't mean to brag, but I can masturbate to anything." However, read Miss Manners long enough, and you'll come across a worthwhile insight. Miss M. once warned her gentle readers not to confuse the acquaintances you have at work with true friendships. Dave Itzkoff learns this the hard way, and his utter honesty and desire for something better in his life pushes this book beyond object-lesson status.
Mark Itzkoff was looking for friends, and he’d come to the wrong place.
You can be tempted to dismiss a man who writes at length about his father's cocaine problem, then decides to smoke crack while on a Jamaican junket with the Maxim staff. (Hey, he's beaten you to the punch by telling you that his judgment's lousy.)
Here's what the crack high was like:
"I... was free of earthly worldly constraints, able to see myself from above as the most extraordinary specimen of manhood in the room. I was bigger than U.S. Steel, greater than any other man I had known in my lifetime, even greater than the man who had been responsible for my creation...
"This feeling lasted for approximately fifteen to twenty seconds. Then my confidence melted away, along with what felt like a portion of my forehead."
Returning to sanity, Mark Itzkoff looks around at his Maxim confederates:
"The other men leaned in, trying to gaze through my glassy eyes to see what I was seeing, but their approving smiles that I had nearly killed myself to earn looked unsatisfying and grotesque. What did their acceptance mean to me now? They had stood by and cheered me on while I defiled myself, for no other reason than it kept them amused. Didn't anyone feel an obligation to protect me? Didn't anyone understand that I needed to be defended—from myself?"
'They had stood by and cheered me on while I defiled myself, for no other reason than it kept them amused.'
Excellent question. The answer is no, not at least among those men crouching next to the author. We need people who talk us out of whatever stupidity we find currently attractive. That's what friends do. Mark Itzkoff didn't have enough of them in the period covered in this book. But he's man enough to admit that he wants them, and human enough not to give up looking.
In World War II, when Soviet troops encountered minefields, their commanders found men who would march over the mines, destroying the danger (and themselves). Mark Itzkoff finds himself in a similar role while moving across the booby-trapped terrain of contemporary romantic relationships. He relates his third-degree-burn humiliations, such as the woman who took him home, invited him upstairs (for the record, here's how he recounts the exchange:
"'Would you like me to come upstairs?' I asked.
'If that's what you want.'")
Mark Itzkoff gets a change of plan much later in the scenario than is typical, and he is confronted with the question, "What is the accepted protocol when a woman decides she wants to stop screwing in midscrew?" He retires, honoring the young lady's wishes.
While Mark Itzkoff may be leading on points in the X Games of romantic pain, few of us pre-marrieds can credibly claim to be free of perpetrating or suffering from Weird Relationship Tricks in our search for the (Theoretically Perfect [and thus chimerical] Romantic Object). Previous generations of homo erectus discovered fire, raised children, had epic adventures, explored the world and outer space. But as for the more recent versions of Western Man and Woman—we've cultivated personalities neurotic enough to make any human relationship with a person of the opposite sex that might lead to a reasonably happy marriage and progeny a troublingly long shot. But I digress.
Few of us pre-marrieds can credibly claim to be free of perpetrating or suffering from Weird Relationship Tricks...
You can learn a good deal in Lads. About how you should find another job before you spend long hours contemplating and discussing the theme: "My boss is an obnoxious idiot." About how you should not put too much stock in your career. About how a long and painful relationship with your father can improve.
And, like Meryn Cadell, Mark Itzkoff learns to move on. Ms. Cadell's 1991 song, "The Sweater," tells a tale of high-school heartbreak suffered by the girl who filches a cute guy's sweater on a camping trip to get a bit of reflected romantic glory. The song's protagonist gets a karmic comeuppance—a note in history class saying that the young man wants his sweater back (and loss of her ill-gotten social status). As Ms. Cadell put it, catching cliches-in-the-making:
And you don't have to die of humiliation, you know
You are a strong person
and this is a learning experience.