Lots of disappointments in GQ’s latest “Men of the Year” issue, with only a few pleasant surprises sprinkled in between. Of course they named president-elect Barack Obama (they were given about forty seconds of his time, and considering that either he or his wife seem to be on the cover of every single magazine in the Western world this month, even that much time is surprising), as how could they not? And once again, roasting tobacco addict Leonardo DiCaprio comes across in his interview as a genuinely intelligent and enthusiastic young man (when he says about the paparazzi who swarm around his life “I do not like the way they conduct themselves,” you have to just nod your head). And Wil S. Hylton’s tribute to Senator Ted Kennedy deserves quoting:
There is today no American who does not owe him a debt. For civil rights and voting rights. For privacy and choice. For clean air and fresh water. In an era of partisan gridlock, he forged alliances and straddled parties, aligning himself with his political nemeses – Hatch, Thurmond, Bush. … He is a cornerstone of the country we love, a founding father of the nation as we know it. His time draws close, and the gift more precious daily.
But alas, such high point are rare. The bulk of the choices leave the reader confused and frustrated. General Petraeus? Touted as a tactical genius when he’s only barely managing to occupy a Fourth World craphole of a country despite being given one of the biggest military tidal waves of reinforcements any modern general has ever received? Aaron Eckhart and Jon Hamm? Touted as era-defining actors because they’ve played a series (or in Hamm’s case just one) chin-cleft nonentities? Gordon Ramsay, touted as a ‘man’s man’ in the kitchen because he atrociously bullies his staff into producing bland, overpriced dishes? To say the least, one looks for more in emblems of a year.
The worst offender among the Men of the Year is probably Olympic wunderkind Michael Phelps, who comes across in Michael Paterniti’s profile as a spoiled, pea-brained, douchebag who values all the wrong things, trusts all the wrong things, and prioritizes all the wrong things (in this he’s undoubtedly no different from any other twenty-something guy, except his new $100 million dollar price-tag makes it just slightly more noticeable). Paterniti wants to paint a friendly, admiring picture of his subject (as far as I know, GQ doesn’t do a ‘Douchebags of the Year’ issue), wants to tell his readers that Michael Phelps is still the same aw-shucks all-American young guy whose teammates used to call him ‘Gomer’ for his lack of guile. But an awful, creepy alternative to this person peeks through every vignette:
He just seems normal, except for the furtive glances of strangers and the stalkerish approach of one waiter who hides behind a tree before squeakily asking for an autograph, one Phelps signs without making eye contact, without pausing in his sentence, the diamonds of his watch sparkling as he tells of how, after leaving Beijing, he went to Portugal, where he met up with a group of friends, just to hide out for a while, and there were paparazzi literally hanging in the trees.
Bet you think I’m going to jump on that bit about the diamond watch, don’t you? Nope! All young people are idiots, and all fashion is idiotic, so it’s a natural extrapolation that a fantastically wealthy young man would think it was stylin’ to wear a $100,000 watch to an hour-long interview at a Tex-Mex place. No, the detail that hints not only at Phelps being an asshole but at Phelps always having been an asshole (Paterniti nowhere relates any of the many stories that’ve cropped up about his aw-shucks paragon since his rise to fame – suffice it to say, he disliked by more people at his alma mater, especially more women, than he was liked) is that bit about signing the autograph without stopping to speak to or even look at the person asking for it. Done in a crowd of imploring note-pads, that’s excusable. Done in private, one-on-one? No amount of fame or money teaches you to have that inside you – it has to be there already.
And if Phelps is the biggest disappointment among the Men of the Year, the biggest disappointment among the interviewers of those men is certainly Andrew Corsello, whose profile of morose, talentless American literary lion Philip Roth reads like a sado-masochist’s love-letter to the prig who treats him like dirt all during their chat. This is how the piece opens:
Is it disdain? Not quite. Disdain requires more energy, more investment. What Philip Roth is giving me is thinner, a mix of four parts boredom and one part irritation. Here’s the word that comes closest: disregard.
In case you’re wondering, Corsello’s attitude toward such treatment is sincere admiration – for him, Roth is the man, the world’s greatest living writer, a literary figure Corsello has read and re-read so many times that Roth’s various novels have become personal touchstones for him:
I myself often return to Roth not only for his words but for my own – the fervent conversations I’ve carried on with him in the margins that, when reread, offer clues to my past selves. When I need to consult the X-rays, I reread The Ghost Writer (the X-ray of my writing soul) and Sabbath’s Theater (of my ravening male soul). When I need to reach my dad and can’t get him on the phone, I sometimes hook up with Swede Levov, American Pastoral‘s protagonist, who’s got my old man’s gentle temperament (if not his savvy and smarts). When I consider the dark scenario of a Sarah Palin presidency, I return to The Plot Against America to see what would become of the country were an evangelical even more dim and anti-other than W. to begin culling the ‘real’ patriots from those who didn’t see “America the way you and I see America.”
This is nothing if not personal, and it gets more so:
Here it is: I go to Roth for that thrilling voice in my head that responds first with How dare he! then revels in the undeniable proof that Ha! It can be done! and finally arrives at Goddamn! Why can’t I take a stab at thinking and writing and living like that?
And the problem with all this earnest if slightly slobbering hero-worship? It’s entirely, 100 percent misplaced. In a career that now spans quite a few decades, Philip Roth has never written a single book that was worth reading, not one single work that had more than an accumulated total of three or four semi-good sentences in it. These books haven’t affected Corsello because of their literary merits (his own prose is effortlessly better than anything Roth has ever condescended to put on paper), because they don’t have any literary merits; they’ve worked whatever magic they’ve worked on him in the same way they’ve managed to win Roth so many male fans who read very few other authors: the books have lots of smutty bits, and they allow misogyny to be draped in writerly affectation. If Roth is a literary lion, he’s also a literal one, mirroring the reality of the male African lion: lazy, complacent, sexist, and fond of hogging the kill. Reading Corsello’s piece made me want nothing more than to email him with lots and lots of book-recommendations.
But disheartened readers can buck themselves up by remembering one great, glowing detail about this issue, a detail we started with: president-elect Obama gave them about forty seconds of his time – not because he, too, is a prig, a douchebag, or an overrated hack, but because he’s just become the busiest man in the world, which is a very, very good thing. That one Man of the Year, smiling courteously at the GQ photographers but really, really needing to dash, is so optimism-affirming he makes up for all the disappointments in the world.
And there’s always next year.