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Illustration by Pamela Hobbs

The Men Who Fell to Earth

Where have all the manly jobs gone? Susan Faludi and a tribe of lost males want to know

By Richard von Busack

Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man
By Susan Faludi
Morrow; 662 pages; $27.50 cloth

THE FAMOUS Bethlehem steelworks by the Lehigh River should be viewed from the bridge at the end of Stefko Road. Though dead, the mill is a fantastic sight, especially on a hazy morning. Behind the mill rise the steep Pennsylvania mountains, typical of the wilder country near the Delaware River.

The hills frame this mile-long shed--four stories tall, 40 shades of gray, topped with powerful smokestacks. Tree-of-heaven and honeysuckle and trash tangle its empty yards. At the Moravian Bookstore downtown, they sell the Bethlehem star ornaments that are special souvenirs of the "Christmas City." Next to these baubles sit photos and books about Bethlehem Steel--and even gift cards decorated with pen-and-ink drawings of the blast furnace.

One of the biggest new businesses downtown is a microbrewery: the Bethlehem Beer Works. Naturally, the decor runs to strict industrial chic: a gear-shaped logo, safety-metal walkways lined with hawsers with turnbuckles and overshadowed by exposed I-beams like the ones the steelworkers at Bethlehem once made for the world.

Tourists come to the Lehigh Valley now for the mountain biking in the nearby hills. They stay over in Jim Thorpe, the coal-mining town formerly known as Mauch Chunk. The town took its new name for money when Thorpe's widow sought out a place that would change its name to honor her husband, a once-famous athlete from Oklahoma.

In Bethlehem lives proof of ex-San Jose Mercury writer Susan Faludi's thesis in her new book, Stiffed: that men's jobs are in transition, from hard hat and work boot to polyester beanie and wrist brace. The rise of what Faludi calls the "ornamental economy" can be seen in the Lehigh Valley in the traditional jobs that leaked away, in the elevation of a sports hero's name over the importance of history.

Faludi's book offers an almost cinematic survey of images of manhood in America at the end of the century. She interviews characters as different as jailed gangbanger Kody Scott, who calls himself "Monster," and actor Sylvester Stallone, fretting over the creative stalemate of his career. From laid-off Lockheed employees to burned-out male porn stars, the men Faludi interviews have lost all sense of security.

Faludi writes about even the most reactionary men without contempt, because she holds to the old liberal faith that deluded people can be made to see and understand their true situation. These angry men, she argues, feel that so much is out of their control because it is out of their control.

"Men aren't simply refusing to 'give up the reins of power' as some feminists have argued," Faludi writes. "The reins have slipped from most of their hands, anyway."

The ornamental economy amply displayed on television and in magazines presents millionaires galore. This economy can be compared to the city buses bearing that irritating new Forbes magazine ad campaign, the one that flaunts the new wealth with the words "Carpal tunnel-stricken, functionally illiterate, personally and morally bankrupt Capitalist Pig." Models impersonating 20-year-old Net zillionaires smirk at you from the outside, but a different class of people actually rides those buses.

After a decade of what Faludi describes as "massive spasms of down-sizing, restructuring, union-breaking, contracting out and out-sourcing," the men she interviews are understandably nervous. Meanwhile, the media, looking for something constructive to tell the overworked or newly laid-off, concerns itself with the failure of men to be macho enough, caring enough, handsome enough--but, mostly, wealthy enough.

Movie-Made Men

THE CHIMERA of male breakdown is also the subject and subtext of two of this year's most prestigious and praised films, Fight Club and American Beauty. In the latter, a man named Lester (played charismatically by Kevin Spacey) transforms himself--for a moment, at least--into the "ornamental man" Faludi describes. Naturally, the movie approves, for a while.

Why not? Movies have helped fuel images of the Ornamental Man, the peacock of the lad mags, that avid consumer, cocksman and blood sportsman. Faludi argues that these disaffected men, like Lester, have been cheated--"stiffed"--out of the chance to do meaningful work. Bottom-line-fevered corporations use their labor and turn them out.

These men, betrayed in a system they trusted, turn to reactionary solutions. Or else they revert to overage boyhood in fan clubs, posses, gangs and packs. Such men become prone to conspiracy theories, to violence or to phallocentric organizations like the Promise Keepers. The lost men and boys are especially fascinated with the warrior spirit and are in terror of its decline.

In pursuit of that vanishing warrior spirit, Faludi visits the Citadel, the strict South Carolina military academy that went up in arms against the arrival of the first woman cadet, Shannon Faulkner. To overcompensate for the end of their all-male refuge, the students increased the brutality of its hazing rituals.

Shows of senseless cruelty like the ones recorded at the Citadel are perhaps understandable--though few have tried, as Faludi does, to make sense out of them. There's not much room for unbridled machismo in the peacetime Army, an organization that's as full of middle management, proper procedures and paperwork as any other corporation.

Anyone who wishes to study current American society must be at least part movie critic. Faludi's autopsy of the hit movie Basic Instinct was a highlight of her famous study of feminism, Backlash. In Stiffed, Faludi's research on the history of the Rambo franchise traces how the popularity of the series helped eclipse the Vietnam experience.

We've forgotten the My Lai massacre, the Army's cooked bookkeeping about body counts, the hostility between the grass-green officers and the foot-soldiers. Instead, we pass around the other stories, repeated and distorted to the point of urban legend: the MIAs trapped in hidden prison camps, the politicians who stabbed our soldiers in the back, the Vietnam veterans spit upon by protestors.

In popular myth, the Vietnam veteran suffered not because he was traumatized but because we lost the war. This myth survives because of more popular amnesia about the struggles of the World War II veterans to adjust. Relatively few viewers today have seen Humphrey Bogart's raging "good war" vet Dixon Steele in Nicholas Ray's In a Lonely Place. Maybe fewer will see David Lynch's The Straight Story, which suggests how the pain of the war could still burn in a man in his 70s. But everyone remembers Rambo: First Blood Part II, in which Stallone, after being briefed on his mission to return the MIAs, asks, "Sir, do we get to win this time?"

Faludi talks to novelist David Morrell, who created the fictional Rambo of the novel First Blood. In the book, Rambo was a hallucinating drifter who literally brings the war back home to a small town in Washington state. In the film adaptation, writes Faludi, "The plot [was] reconfigured to portray a world where martyred sons are redeemed by all-powerful fathers." With the help of his commanding officer, Rambo changes from lone shock-case to armored avenger. Kill-therapy saves his soul.

Because of films like Rambo, and lost or strayed history, we've reached bottom. Some deluded American men and boys curse their greatest blessing: the blessing of never having had to fight in a war. Unable to get their hands on the CEOs who laid them off or moved jobs overseas, the stiffed men look for a spiritual war to fight.

In her chapters on the Promise Keepers, Faludi descends into what she calls "The Seventh Circle of Jesus Kitsch." Every era remakes Jesus in its own mold, and the 1990s Jesus is a loving father, the role model for stiffed dads.

Faludi's chapters on the Promise Keepers are a relief, really. The male assertiveness, the pledge to put women in their place, sound like the planks of a fascist platform. The Promise Keepers movement burned like a prairie fire--brief, hot, gone in an instant.

In Faludi's hands, the organization loses some of its threat. Faludi's description of the chaos at the souvenir stand at a Promise Keepers rally is droll: "As I watched the men inside the huge tents, cramming random knickknacks into their official PK plastic tote bags or standing in endless lines to deposit their money in the cash registers operated by tired but chipper female checkers, what I found so striking about this tableau suddenly hit me: the men were all shopping, the woman were all working." The passage is the closest Faludi comes to mocking these men, the latest males enamored of the Robert Bly/Iron John manly myth.

Gender Is the Night

FALUDI'S THESIS also fits the critical vision of the men's movement seen in the David Fincher parody Fight Club with Brad Pitt and Edward Norton. In Time magazine, Faludi has said the film is a "speeded-up" version of her book. Many critics have seen the very bloody and very bowed men in Fight Club as poster boys for fascism. Any movie that shows violence can be accused of celebrating violence, and so Fight Club's grisly boxing scenes and an ending that's like a $200 million version of The Fountainhead have been accused of promoting bare-knuckle fights in the nation's bars.

The author of the novel on which Fight Club is based, Chuck Palahniuk, has some of the usual delusions about a man's need to get his fists bloody; he's been saying as much in interviews. The film has smartly reversed these stale ideas, turning horror into horrific slapstick, changing the book's bland stiffed hero into the ratty, nutty, grubby nameless narrator (Edward Norton). The Fight Club doesn't cheer destruction. Instead, the explosive finale shows the consequences of anyone championing the will to fight over the knowledge of when to fight.

On the surface, American Beauty also offers a hard-hitting vision of male discontent. The film's anti-hero, like the Promise Keepers, expresses his rebellion through shopping. He buys weightlifting equipment, expensive weed and a sports car. But the film approves of his materialism. What really seems to be bothering director Sam Mendes and writer Alan Ball is that Lester is too old a man to be carrying on this way.

Lester Burnham is a hangdog trade-magazine fact-checker. In voice-over, from beyond the grave, he talks about his pathetic life. Gnawed upon by his vicious wife, Carolyn (Annette Bening), and sullen daughter, Jane (Thora Birch), alike, he has turned to silence and masturbation.

Dragged off to see his daughter's cheerleading practice, Lester spies Angela (Mena Suvari), a golden girl. Haunted, Lester quits his job, from which he was in danger of being laid off by an efficiency expert. Ditching his role as husband and father in his quest for youth, Lester regresses to a teenage level, listening to rock, sassing the women in his life and getting stoned.

Lester is compared unfavorably to Ricky (Wes Bentley), the handsome adolescent boy next door. Ricky, a video artist, loves to capture random moments, including the dance of a shopping bag in the wind. He also sells marijuana, a job at which he is shrewd and very successful. In other words, he's both artist and drug entrepreneur: he's mastered not one ornamental manhood career but two.

American Beauty also provides a critique of militarism. Ricky's father is a violent man, an Army officer who beats his son. But I think the character is just there to keep us from hating Ricky for being so thoroughly perfect.

The film doesn't talk about the economic desperation of the Burnhams--the reasons for Carolyn's desexing, her violent frustration as she tries unsuccessfully to sell houses.

The Burnhams are, on the face of it, an excellent example of the strugglers in today's economy. They're bedeviled by the same symptoms of discontent that Stiffed describes: "an insecure job, a rise in status anxiety, and a mound of credit card debt." But director Mendes overlays escapist fantasy on the story. While Lester does face a layoff from his loathed job, he manages to turn the situation around. He blackmails his way into a handsome severance check. When that starts to run out, he applies for and gets a fast-food job, which he likes.

As if Lester were a typical emasculated sitcom dad, his rebellion is squashed. Angela, the Lolita who has changed Lester's life, turns out to be a confused little girl who needs a dad's guidance. The moral of American Beauty is that sometimes a man has to be shot in the head to make him realize the importance of his paternal obligations.

At the end of the film, the murdered Lester blesses his murderer and his family. Lester has died happily in the defense of family values--values that he once mocked but now, in Paradise, understands.

Both American Beauty and the desperate men in Faludi's book insist on the hardiness and dangerousness of life. Everything's a threat: the uppity women who must be combated or protected. What happens if Lester leaves his shrew of a wife and lives with an avid young girl? What happens if men become fluid, unpredictable, unknowable, in real life as in the movies? We don't know, but we do know it'll be frightening, distasteful. Unmanly.

Man and Mythos

'STIFFED' is an important book, and it's a relief to read. The manly virtues, celebrated in movies, drawn out of a Grimms' fairy tale or tub-thumped in specious newspaper editorials about children in peril--all the noise begins to drill into the male brain.

Faludi's book reminds the reader that some men are more weakened than naturally weak. Advertising sells inadequacy, and doubt about manhood is the source of all inadequacy in men. So, some men aren't molded by a father. What of it? Does a man have to be molded? Can't a man be accreted, like a stalagmite?

Someone I know recently got a glimpse into a scary parallel universe. His father turned up after an absence of many years. He apologized to his son, in his own fashion. Yes, he'd never been much of a father. Then again, he'd never had a chance to make the mistakes he likely would have made.

Remembering the man's hostility, violence and bigotry, this unfathered son thought of what it would be like to have been subject to his dad's authority--instead of being left to the negligence of a typical distracted '70s-style mother, in the sort of divorced family everyone complains about today. Suddenly, the mythic importance of a father seemed better left to myth.

The word nostalgia means a kind of sickness, and it's a disease that strikes the memory first. I think that Faludi is one of the most important reporters since Studs Terkel turned on his tape recorder. Yet even she's subject to golden hindsight.

Stiffed searches out a perfect life that once upon a time existed. And here's the weak spot in the book. It's in Faludi's loving description of the Long Beach Naval Shipyards and the jobs there that brought pride to a racially diverse workforce. At times, these appealing passages are a romanticization of the tough reality of industrial work. (The cover bears this out: Gordon Parks' Gap-ad-quality photo of a foreman at the Structural Steel Company in 1946, a proud man in profile, with a boxer's nose and the stub of an unfiltered cigarette in his hands.)

These good people in the harbor cities of Los Angeles whom Faludi understandably admires were, after all, making weapons used to kill other families: perfect, two parent, one parent, or what have you. I understand Faludi's attraction, though. The old days in Bethlehem look like a simple fulfilling life. On one side of the road is "the Steel," as they all call it; on the corner would be your tavern or your church, and a block away your house.

And we writers all long for material that will yield to a hammer or a wrench. There's no standard gauge for words. Do you know how much euphemistic talk there is in this business? Writers who aren't of the author grade call themselves "wordsmiths," as if they were actual verb-mechanics; editors talk of "tuning" or "tightening" prose. Is it possible that Faludi has daydreams about a life that's more ... concrete ... than the one a writer leads?

The steelworks nostalgia hides a crueler past. Now, if that cruel past can be remembered as a prologue to the more hidden forms of cruelty in today's economy, Faludi will be entitled to her optimism in the conclusion of Stiffed. There, she considers the possibility that men will realize women are not their enemies, not their rivals. Liberated from myth, men and women alike will head into a century that's going to need a lot more brother and sisterhood and a lot fewer warriors. Unlikely, perhaps. But it all seems a lot more plausible, and a lot more appetizing, than the end of civilization in Fight Club or the American pie-in-the-sky ending of American Beauty.

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From the November 4-10, 1999 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 1999 Metro Publishing Inc. MetroActive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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