How I cured myself of a craving for selvedge denim.
Taken together, O'Brien's short essays convey a philosophy of what we might call democratic dandyism. He believes that true counterculture, which is healthy for a democracy, requires sartorial liberalism, which will give rise to a uniform of protest; but because the great subversive looks of the recent past, from beat to hippie to Goth, have all been co-opted by consumer culture, all that is left for the man of action is to become a real peacock, a connoisseur of elegance, ideally one with some handmade shoes and perhaps even a smoking jacket and foulard in his closet. As if to conform to his clothing, a man thus outfitted will have a certain brusque, no-bullshit swagger. The best essay here, a real classic, is his taxonomy of insult words. "A dick is a careless egotist who abuses others in demonstration of his high and misplaced self-regard," O'Brien writes. "A dickhead is similarly uncaring and overconfident but generally with less intelligence and skill. … Dick Cheney is a dick; George Bush is a dickhead."
There are some who will be intoxicated by O'Brien. If you have dandyish leanings yourself, or if you envy people who seem to live with the unafraid brio that a fat bank account allows, who may attend the best parties but are confident enough to skip them, who may attend them but get thrown out after throwing a punch, then O'Brien is an amiable guide to the life that perhaps you were meant to live.
But others will be repulsed by this book, and not just those uncomfortable with pomposity, high style, and assumptions of wealth. (Given O'Brien's penchant for name-dropping great New York bohemians of the 1970s and '80s, many of whom were broke as wedding vows, it is surprising how little he has to say to the writers, artists, and musicians who did not graduate to great incomes.) There is something a bit too cavalier in O'Brien's assumption that the life well displayed is the life well lived. He is quite the poet of chivalry and gallantry, but he is not much interested in the virtues that those honor codes are meant to support. He hates religion, as many of the best people do. But that hatred seems to extend to any code that might demand sacrifice. There is no mention in this book of charity, for example; manhood apparently does not recommend even fashionable sorts of largesse, like giving away money or serving on nonprofit boards. It certainly does not include picking up litter at the neighborhood park, or volunteering for the PTA. From what I can tell, manhood does not require voting.
As for fatherhood, O'Brien seems unmanfully undecided. He is a heterosexual, as he reminds us more than once, more than twice even. He even relishes enacting a kind of macho, Mars/Venus cluelessness ("Women are essentially different from men … [a]nd even though we wind up in the most intimate collaboration possible, we are never quite sure of our partner's motivations or rewards"). He is a father, although the reader is never clear of how many, because O'Brien prefers vague, arch formulations like, "I don't wear a plow or a sword, but on the reproductive front I am getting the job done." Charming, no? We learn almost nothing about his child (children?) except that O'Brien is willing to use television and video games to win quiet: "And while I have certain regrets over purchasing a video-game system for my son, I have taken some mischievous delight in passing on this incurable addiction to the obstreperous children of guests."
How To Be a Man is funny and urbane, beautifully bound and deckle-edged. But I loved reading it because it cured me of my temporary hankering to be more of a Glenn O'Brien-type, with better clothes, a busier social calendar, and a facility for apothegms like, "Buy a Star Trek uniform in case you get called for jury duty." It is probably possible to live a meaningful existence amid all that frippery, but if so, O'Brien does not make the case. I think he is probably quite sad. He does not seem to like women much, and I gather he likes children even less, although he probably loves his own. He used to love gay men, back when they were flamboyant and fun, but now they are domestic and shabbily dressed. He hates cats, tolerates dogs. He does not seem to know any poor people anymore, unless they are cleaning up after him.
I find O'Brien's existence alluring, but there is something dirty about this book. I read it because I was thinking a lot about clothes, and now I feel bad for having thought that much about clothes. Most people, if they are lucky enough to have some disposable income, balance frugality and consumption; they want to treat themselves well, but believe there is such thing as too much. O'Brien thinks otherwise. Having been well-regarded and well-fed for several decades now, he is eager to recommend that state. I probably will not be joining him at the party, and would not even if I could; but thanks to him, I would know precisely what to wear.
Mark Oppenheimer writes the Beliefs column for the New York Times. He can be found at markoppenheimer.com and followed on Twitter @markopp1.
Illustration by Rob Donnelly.