- - Friday, August 19, 2011

THE MAN IN THE GRAY FLANNEL SKIRT
By Jon-Jon Goulian
Random House, $25, 295 pages

The cleverest thing about this book is what it’s called: It’s always a neat trick when, by altering just one word in a well-known title, you can achieve the most apt one for your own. Certainly Jon-Jon Goulian is clever, academically gifted (Columbia University as an undergraduate, New York University Law School) and adept at obtaining fast-track jobs (clerk to a federal judge, assistant to legendary New York Review of Books founding editor Robert Silvers).

And his immediate family, with his hematologist father, superachieving siblings and other assorted relatives maternal and paternal, is a eugenicist’s dream come true: He was a high school soccer star as well as star student. He didn’t have to rely on mere DNA either: When his father wasn’t advocating education and achievement, there was always the firsthand wisdom and advice showered on him by his maternal grandfather, none other than the redoubtable philosopher, all-round savant and wisest of sages Sidney Hook.

Yet to judge by his earnest avowals in this passionate first book, Mr. Goulian has chosen to devote his life to the pursuit of the trivial, and I cannot stress this word too strongly. He is at great pains to assure you - over and over again and in a variety of ways - that his devotion to makeup and women’s clothes is in no way related to homosexual orientation or acts.

In fact, he offers explicit - some might think too much so - testimony as proof of this. Warning to readers: They should steel themselves for some pretty graphic writing about sex in these pages, giving new dimensions to the concept of “too much information,” all of it unfortunately delivered with little humor or wit.

What Mr. Goulian really likes is lip gloss and earrings and, yes, that eponymous skirt. Oh, and rhinoplasty, too. He had his first one as teenager, paid for by his mother, and when she, belatedly sensible, refused to pay for a second, he managed to pay for it himself.

Although his detailed description of the painful horrors suffered during the procedure will gross out anyone not already turned off by the descriptions of sex, he’s apparently set on having a third one. Yeats said that women must labor to be beautiful, but Mr. Goulian apparently is resolutely prepared to suffer torture in pursuit of the frivolous. Paying for this one should be no trouble in view of the large advance given “The Man in the Gray Flannel Skirt.”

Normally the best response to a turn like Mr. Goulian’s might be to ignore it. But it is the portrait of Sidney Hook - and Mr. Goulian’s relationship to him - that makes it worthwhile to bother with this trifle. For if Mr. Goulian is entitled to trivialize his own life (a questionable proposition at best) it is a travesty to see a great man, one of the finest minds of the 20th century and a wonderful human being, treated, as he is in this book, as a grumpy old Neanderthal, “Oompus Grumpus.”

His grandson is aware of the esteem in which the world held - and holds - Hook. He dwells grudgingly on it and seems to resent it. The protean beliefs of a long life are listed as if they are contradictions, without appreciation of the ongoing quest that made espousal - and when necessary, recantation of them - templates for right-thinking people.

Worse still, he dwells on Hook’s fierceness as a logician and debater, making him seem like an intellectual thug rather than an inspired and always thoughtful crusader in the culture wars. And it’s not as if this was not a fond and caring grandfather, as Mr. Goulian admits and demonstrates by incident and letter. Why then choose to devote more space to Hook’s concerns about the septic tank on his rural property than to his wit and wisdom? Why be so obtuse that you resent, rather than learn from, his sagacity when he tries to correct your clueless enjoyment of Lillian Hellman’s infamous “Scoundrel Time?’ “

Aye, that’s the rub: Mr. Goulian is no more interested in profiting from closeness to this giant among men than from any of the other privileges bestowed on him. What is such a legacy compared to lip gloss? In the end, what one must feel more than anything else after reading this sad book - for certainly someone barely into his 40s contemplating a third nose job is not a contented man, whatever else he is - is overwhelming pity at such waste, such pathetic squandering of a rich legacy.

• Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.