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I am Man, Hear Me Whimper

By (September 1, 2009) No Comment

Amateur Barbarians

By Robert Cohen
Scribner, 2009

Benjamin Franklin thrived on aphorisms. Always knowing the right phrase, the precise elocutionary attack, seemed natural for a patriarch in the prime of his days. The “meridian of his life,” as middle school teacher Oren Pierce puts it to his literature class. But Oren mistakes “meridian” for the high point rather than the middle. Thirty years old, he assumes that a quintagenarian must be a valuable member of society, settled and comfortable, with wisdom to spare.

Meanwhile Teddy Hastings, the middle school principal, arrives at age fifty-three armed with aphoristic language: “No man becomes a prophet who was not first a shepherd.” “The harder the way, the more worthwhile the journey.” But he’s wise to the fact that man’s latter years can be an aching abyss. What Teddy values above all is movement. He reveres the explorer Richard Burton and his unflappable progress across Africa, through jungles and deserts, seeking the primitive core of Man within.

Robert Cohen sets these two men, one fresh and green and one middle-aged, against each other in his fourth novel Amateur Barbarians. Though the title suggests otherwise, they are not the gladiator type. Their only confrontation comes early on, when Teddy hires Oren for the school. Cohen sets them both on a quest that affirms the simplest, most basic—and, naturally, most masculine—urges of ordinary living. As Teddy’s eagerness for exploration grows, Oren moves toward the mundane and away from his scattershot twenties. Lawyer, film student, drug-addled artist, rabbi: he’s done everything and learned nothing:

Strange: for all his expeditions over the years, his peripatetic yo-yoing across the country, Oren had never actually landed in America before, never docked, unloaded, and established a colony in the heartland. And now here he was. Enfolded by forests and mountains, in a town with eight churches, one movie theater, four restaurants, one supermarket, and two state-run liquor stores. So much for creature comforts.

… It was the absence of light, not the presence, that stirred his imagination. The vacancy that must be filled up from the bottom, in a new way.

To be a real man in Cohen’s universe, you must relish experience. Losing, as both Oren and Teddy admit, strengthens a man to his core, pumps him up for his next workout. And there are many lessons in the dullness of small-town America. Day-by-day regularity is a double-edged sword: suburban sameness placates and also agitates a man’s soul. Cohen concentrates wisely on the little moments that add up to a life. True, the narrative sparks with police arrests, accusations of child pornography, clandestine liaisons, and soul-searching bohemians who become pregnant. But the book lets each of these events approach us gently, dispassionately, silencing any echo of melodrama. Each is an experience to check off, not a movie-of-the-week shocker.

Real men also value morality. With the town’s eight churches, and all that existential pontificating, Cohen skewers his men with a sort of neo-satire. His style is light and breezy, his intentions often emotional, and his political leanings irrelevant. He jests at our admiration of third-world missionaries through Teddy’s daughter Danielle, a free-world-lovin’ hippie who uses Africa for a fulfillment more sexual than spiritual. But Cohen steps out of his own way when we (and Teddy) meet Danielle on her turf. She begrudges her father’s ignorance but freely admits her own. She’s a girl hungry for any exploration, and who still needs her father’s assured guidance.

Not that Teddy has always knows what’s best. His family doesn’t offer much sympathy when he receives a cancer scare; shaving his head translates for his wife Gail and his daughter Mimi as a cry for attention. Unsatisfied, he stares at himself in the mirror and unleashes one of Cohen’s typically acerbic self-reflections:

He looked as if he’d lost a fight with an Etch A Sketch, as if his big, moony face had been doodled over with lead shavings by some hyperactive child. Whatever the relation between his prior self and this demented cartoon character he now glimpsed in the mirror was a riddle that would require, Teddy thought, a great many more microbrews to solve. So he returned to the bar to get started.

The fear of getting started, especially in a new environment, feeds the soul but also terrifies. He seeks some fabled masculinity: charting new territories, returning to primitivism. But Cohen opens the novel with Teddy on the treadmill, pushing himself forward yet moving nowhere. He tries to go deeper with his family, especially talking to Mimi, but he hates “the artichoke quality of their conversations, the effort of stripping away the tough, ironic armor, getting down to the hairy heart.” The rough exterior dissuades him; the heart and its vulnerability frighten him.

Oren also prospers on reinvention—but only on the process of changing: an indefinite metamorphosis without leaving the cocoon. He steps into the shoes of acting vice principal while Teddy takes a sabbatical from the school, but his new title grants him no further authority. After floundering for so long, he settles into aimlessness and modest ambition.

As the title suggests, neither protagonist is deft at asserting his alpha male-ness. Their one and only battleground, the tempest that connects them, is Gail Hastings. As she drifts further from her husband, she and Oren meet over bedside visits to a colleague in a coma. They begin charting a somewhat lethargic path toward the possibility of romance—or at least the need for satiation. Cohen finds more tenderness in their tryst than ardor. Oren is not, in his few relationships mentioned, a carnal man; he’s incapable of summoning any barbaric he-man energy. In bed with women, he’s unusually quiet.

Regrettably, as Oren moves from anarchy to conformity, Cohen seems to lose interest in him. Sure, he’s discovering himself, exploring new horizons, but expectations are low for Oren’s journey. Cohen has created a character that we discern through his continual self-analysis. He questions real life in true existential fashion. He soliloquizes on and on again about how strange—and yet not—it is to be ordinary:

The days peeling off, light and flimsy and blurrily similar, like copies off a mimeograph machine… he’d never felt so weighed down by commitments and yet at the same time so weightless, so blank. If this was normality, then he couldn’t say he liked it much. On the other hand he didn’t dislike it either.

The problem with this second protagonist is his emptiness. Even as a teacher, looking down on apathetic faces, he feels like “a crossword puzzle in a magazine to which none of their parents subscribed.” After plundering Oren’s back-story, Cohen lets him flounder around, trapped in his own head and his routine of grocery-shopping and channel-changing. One hundred pages from the end, he finally comes to a decision regarding Gail, but even then Cohen seems reluctant to give him much agency.

Cohen himself is closer to Teddy’s age; it’s understandable that his character receives more attention. The novel opens and closes with Teddy, emphasizing the large emotional and physical distance he traverses. He counts the time he must have left on this planet and attempts to prolong his existence first with physical means: an exercise regimen in the basement. Creative stimulation comes next, with a class in photography, but he doesn’t understand the professor’s praise for his composition in seemingly banal, half-considered snapshots. Frustrated at home, his motives turn from adventure to escape. Yet by visiting Danielle in Africa, he faces the profound disappointment that home is not so far away, no matter how much he wants to break free: “But every erasure left its own prints, own trails, every darkness broken by small, familiar lights.” He’s not some whippersnapper, but a man who’s racked up mileage over the years, and has the battle scars to show for it.

It’s Gail who springs to life in the second half, leaving her perfectly manicured shell to search for any connection she can make. She and Teddy have been communicating for years in worn-out expressions and perfunctory exchanges over their morning coffee. She has nobody at home to confide in. One daughter in Africa, the other mired in adolescence. Teddy bearing his soul not to her but to his brother, Philip, who died of cancer. So she takes charge of her meetings with Oren—scrambling out of their weekly swims at the Y when she wants, not letting him make the first move. She confesses to Oren that she’s nuttier and more disheveled than she seems; but for her married life, she’s been the maidenhead of the family schooner, weathering the storms and staying on course.

Cohen paints all three characters as amateurs. Not just at becoming savage or embracing the wildness of life, but at finding contentment in the simple little morsels they hunger for. Traveling to Africa, Teddy learns, doesn’t whitewash his legal troubles at home, doesn’t quench his wanderlust. Settling down in one place, for Oren, isn’t the American dream he’d anticipated. Gail is scared and empowered by her unflappable cool in relationships, whether with Oren or with her family. Cohen bounces gracefully between these insights and a half-cartoonish view of the town as a whole and its social awareness:

“Speaking of Africa,” Alex said, “I hear the Lion Club’s going this summer. There’s an article in the Courier. They’re going to build a school.”
“A worthy endeavor,” Fiona said drily.
“Don’t you find it offensive,” said Carol, “the way we talk about Africa like it’s all one place? It’s got like forty different countries in it.”
“Fifty-six,” Fiona said. “Jeremy did a report.”

Amateur Barbarians succeeds as a humorous and touching read despite the imbalance of its two leading men. Cohen’s sharp prose undercuts some of the emotional baggage, forcing readers to study these characters’ minor ambitions as if under a microscope. His meticulous reportage transforms the everydayness of life—and its inconclusiveness—into something more than ordinary.

Joshua Garstka is working toward an M.A. in Publishing and Writing from Emerson College. He’d like to mention that Africa actually has fifty-three countries and one disputed territory. This is his first piece for Open Letters Monthly.

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