Saturday, May 13, 2006

The image of men in contemporary culture generally falls into one of five categories. There is sitcom man, who is usually plain or ugly and weighs much more than his wife. He is an idiot, unable to do the simplest task and should feel lucky any woman would have him.

There is pro athlete man, whose boorish behavior is exceeded only by his sexual conquests and ridiculous salary demands.

There is Playboy man, represented by the fossilized Hugh Hefner who, were it not for what he pays the blonde bimbos who hang on his arm and the little blue pills he takes so he might convince himself and others he is still desirable, would long ago have been stuffed and put in a museum.

There is soldier man; not the hero who gives his life for the freedom of others, but the few the media pay attention to that commit atrocities.

There is “Brokeback Mountain” man and we know their story, whether we’ve seen the movie or not.

Where can one find real men these days? One place is in Bob Greene’s new book, “And You Know You Should Be Glad,” published by William Morrow. The title is taken from the Beatles’ 1963 hit, “She Loves You” and the sentiment from an era whose men were less confused about who they were. This is the best book I have ever read about male bonding.

It is the story of five boys who meet in kindergarten in Bexley, Ohio, a suburb of Columbus. They remain close friends for 57 years. When four of them discover the fifth, Jack Roth, has cancer, they return to Bexley to be with him. They help him relive his life and their own. If you are a man and after reading this book you don’t cry and feel more a man than you’ve ever felt before, you have no heart. You will cry because you either have or had friends like this or you wish you had them.

Mr. Greene is a master at transporting strangers into lives and places you have never visited but makes you feel at home. He taps the difficult realm of male emotions as few men I’ve known. He calls this book “the biography of a friendship.” He says, even though we may not have known Jack Roth, “there is someone in your life very much like him.”

As Mr. Greene describes Roth, I am reminded of a lyric from the musical, “Show Boat” about a man named Bill: ” an ordinary guy; he hasn’t got a thing that I can brag about.” Except in this case, this ordinary man is a friend of Bob Greene, Chuck Shenk, Danny Dick and Allen Schulman. Their bond is something all of them regard as greater than their careers. They even created an abbreviation for their friendship from the first letters of their first names: ABCDJ.

Remember what innocence once looked like? You’ll rediscover it in Mr. Greene’s book. It is sweet. It is wholesome. It is, or ought to be, a place every grown man should try to visit at least once more during his life.

The tenderness the four display toward Jack reflects behavior and attitude we associate almost exclusively with women. But male emotions are felt and expressed differently and Mr. Greene taps into them in a wonderful way. When Chuck cries as he visits his dying friend, he is never manlier.

As Jack tours Bexley with his friends, recalling favorite places — some of which have ceased to exist physically, but are embedded in memory — Mr. Greene writes of him, “He was tasting his life. He was savoring who he was, and where he had been, who he had known… he was tasting it with a fierce and pervading kind of appetite. It wasn’t nostalgia; this was much more profound than that, this, in my eyes, was something that bordered on holy.”

What brought me to tears after living their lives with them through Mr. Greene’s recollections was his description of Jack’s funeral, which their kindergarten teacher, “Miss Barbara,” attended. Mr. Greene told me when he sent her the manuscript, she cried.

Anyone looking for a perfect Father’s Day gift should get “And You Know You Should Be Glad.” I have rarely been touched as deeply by a modern work. Even women will love this book. But guys, this one’s primarily for you. When you’ve finished it, I know you will be glad.

Cal Thomas is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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