Maxim is the world's best-selling "men's lifestyle" magazine, with a worldwide following, in 16 countries, of 2.5 million readers. If you take a minute to visit Maxim's Web site you'll see that it is essentially a hobbyist's magazine for guys whose hobby is jerking off. It's like Cat Fancy with Anna Kournikova on the cover instead of rare Balinese Bobtails. You'll note, also, that it is one of those staples of straight masculinity that seem (as we homophobic eighth-graders used to say) totally gay. This month's feature comparing brands of black jeans aside, all those gozangas and booties and naughty jokes ("What do you call a nun's underpants? A crack habit!") make up the gossamer-thin premise for a magazine that seems, finally, pretty fixated on the penis. (Washing your jeans in cold water "prevents shrinkage … very important for you!") Maxim is a huge seller, both here and in England, I imagine primarily because there are a lot of guys who prefer it to the company of actual women.
It's unlikely you'll develop a subtle inner life reading Maxim, unless thinking to yourself "Could penis enlargement really work for me?" counts as an inner life. But apparently working for Maxim does put one at risk for introspection: There are no fewer than three "serious" literary books now or soon to be * in print by present-day or former Maxim top brass: Dave Itzkoff's Lads, a coming-of-age memoir; former editor in chief Keith Blanchard's The Deed, a novel; and, weirdest of all, A Glass Half Full, a book of poetry by Maxim's multizillionaire publisher, Felix Dennis.
Itzkoff's Lads is a memoir of a guy who graduates from Princeton, spends some soul-searching time on his parents' sofa in the burbs, finally lands a job in publishing, and moves to the city. (Wait a minute—did I write this book? Did you?) The years at Princeton are done in tiger orange and black, with a soundtrack by Vivaldi; life at home gets wall-to-wall carpeting and an coke-addict daddy out of Twain **; New York is blinking neon, honking horns, wisecracking. Itzkoff's promise to "consider the torturous path that any piece of copy had to follow before it ever appeared in print" might well mark the all-time low-water mark for the quest narrative, a distinguished genre that passed through Homer to Mallory to Cervantes and Joyce before it landed here, in the cube farm at Maxim.
Is there a rule that books by self-diagnosed "lads" and "cads" be written by nerds? I kept waiting for the lads in the title to show up in the book—barbarians on horseback, perhaps brandishing Phil Donahue's severed head. But finally I realized Itzkoff and his Maxim crew are the lads in question. Lads, I guess, prefer masturbation to real sex. (There is a chapter titled "At Last, Some Fucking," to which I exclaimed, Hallelujah! Sorry to report, it's full of sentences like "she was perfectly happy to take me directly inside her, and I was equally happy to comply.") Lads apparently do wild things like collect vintage action figures, go to bachelor parties in New Orleans, drop ecstasy at weddings, and smoke weed at company functions in Jamaica. Itzkoff even—get this—acquires the nickname "Bitchkoff." In one wild-west moment Itzkoff's editor at Details, miffed at Itzkoff's resignation, thunders You'll never work for this company again. When it's quittin' time at Maxim, these lads round up the hot interns and head straight to a Jim Carrey movie.
Blanchard's The Deed reads like a collection of adjectives he's just learned in his SAT prep-class, yoked to weird PG-rated sexual picaresque: something about a modern-day New Yorker named Hansvoort and a hot babe who happens to be the last surviving member of the Manahatta tribe. You get the picture. Dennis' is the more interesting case. After a flicker of countercultural legitimacy as editor of the '60s underground paper Oz (and as a defendant in the notorious free speech trial of 1971 that made the paper a cause célèbre) Dennis made his fortune publishing Kung Fu magazine, whose ubiquity in those days is perhaps the primary reason you can conjure an image of Bruce Lee's greased nude torso upon request. (Try it now.) Dennis Publishing Inc. made Dennis one of the richest men in England, feeding his voracious appetite for giant outdoor cast-bronze sculptures of himself and his heroes (Stephen Hawking, Geronimo, Muhammad Ali), as well as crack cocaine, wine, and, now, lyric poetry.
Dennis has wondered aloud whether he "may be one of the best poets of the first quarter of the 21st century"—a glass-half-full self-assessment if ever there was one—and compared himself, favorably, to Shakespeare. Tom Wolfe compares him to Kipling, denigrating, by the way, "the poor old mallarme'd and ezrapounded world of contemporary poetry." Indeed, there is something pastoral, even pre-modern, about most of Dennis' poems: They seem like the sort of thing A.E. Housman might have written if he had once published a biography of Bruce Lee. Or perhaps if Dylan Thomas had lived, sobered up, and started his own self-esteem seminar, the results might have sounded like the villanelle "Never Go Back":
Never go back. Never go back.
Never surrender the future you've earned.
Keep to the track, to the beaten track,
Never return to the bridges you've burned.
There are Raleigh-like poems of moral instruction here, and Tennysonian poems about the nobility of art, and riffs on Blake's "Tyger." There's considerable reading in the canon on evidence in A Glass Half Full, far more than in any of Dennis' previous books—and that includes his 1975 volume Man Eating Sharks: A Terrifying Compilation.
Dennis is supporting A Glass Half Full with a reading tour (info at www.felixdennis.com) of England and the States, dubbed the "Did I Mention The Free Wine?" tour. The idea is, if you show up to hear Dennis read his poems, he pours you copious glasses of expensive French vintages from his private collection. The crowds have overflowed, which the tour organizer attributes to "real enthusiasm" for Dennis' poems, adding that most people attending "had never been to a poetry reading before." Now, hold on a minute: I'm no lab scientist, but I dimly recall from sophomore Bio the notion of thorough controls for one's experiments, and I might humbly suggest that Dennis run controls both for his poetry and for his wine. I'd recommend a simultaneous poetry tour named, perhaps, "Did I Mention There Is No Free Wine?" and another, omitting poetry entirely, called simply "Free Wine."
I don't know if Maxim lit will become a full-fledged literary genre, but there's something sort of noble about these Maxim guys all the same. With the dwindling down of traditional masculinity, "manhood," once literally synonymous with virtue (vir, Latin, "man"), is now just a euphemism for "schlong." With their giant bronze Geronimos, their Elizabethan castles, their Xboxes, their SAT words and sentimental poetry and, above all, their unbridled, gleeful embrace—also, as it turns out, literal—of their respective, um, manhoods, Maxim men unapologetically indulge their inner adolescents. I suppose it's true that all men carry deep within a collector's centerfold poster of Bruce Lee in "Fists of Fury." Speaking of fists, Itzkoff claims near the end of Lads that he can "masturbate to nearly anything," and that "luscious spokesbabes" and supermodels only make him "want himself more." And Dennis has announced his newest venture, to plant 20,000 new acres of forest all across England, "The Forest of Dennis." With all the countless thousand handfuls of seed scattered over the years by Maxim men, it's nice to think that some will finally take root.
Correction, Aug. 12, 2004: Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this piece mistakenly referred to these three books as in print. In fact, Lads does not go on sale until Sept. 7, 2004. Return to corrected sentence.