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Not Your Average Joe

Author Norah Vincent dressed up as a man to find out how men really behave in all-male environments. Surprise, surprise: They're nice guys.
 
 
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Norah Vincent's Self-Made Man is the third book in a stretch of "immersion journalism" stories -- tales of identity deception -- I've read in recent months. I had just put down Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed, in January when I found Howard Griffin's Black Like Me behind the Sky Mall magazine on an airplane ride.

Ehrenreich turned herself into a lower-class wage slave and took a bunch of bad jobs across the country. Griffin, a white author, took some skin medication that turned him black and passed himself off as a Negro in 1960s New Orleans. Both of those books left me muttering variants on that great maxim of Martin Luther King Jr.'s. With Ehrenreich I thought, "It's class," and with Griffin, "It's definitely not race."

After reading Self-Made Man, I found myself saying, "It's not gender, it's Vincent's class."

In her normal life, Vincent, a newspaper columnist for the L.A. Times , lives in Greenwich Village, New York, with her wife. She's done fabulously well on the money wheel, and Self-Made Man will surely net her a nice sum, judging by its trajectory on the New York Times bestseller list.

Vincent explains that as a young girl, she was a tomboy and a late bloomer, mocked for having "no ass and no tits" by her brother's friends while her female classmates were bulging with curves. It was around this time that the idea for her alter ego "Ned" was born. The purpose of her book, Vincent writes early on, is to share "a woman's-eye view of one guy's approximated life." Also, she hints in another explanatory passage, she wanted to use part of her book to "infiltrate exclusive all-male environments and, if possible, learn their secrets."

So Vincent does a little weightlifting to pad her unusually tall 5'9'' frame and glues fine particles of her hair to her face to create the stubble effect. Add in a few lessons with a voice training coach from Juilliard, and presto: Norah Vincent is Ned.

Ned isn't really "manly" -- he's a metrosexual, a bicoastal twerp you might find blathering in the opinion pages of a major newspaper: David Brooks or Michael Kinsley trying to pour concrete. That's the kind of man Vincent became, not your average Joe.

Ned's life in Manville starts in a blue-collar bowling league with a bunch of construction worker types. Vincent lets us know at the beginning of that chapter that she's aware the obstacles of class difference are going to impede on her epiphanies about what makes men men. Her "proudly self-confessed trailer-trash" friend warns her, "Just remember that the difference between your people and my people is that my people bowl without irony."

Vincent translates that for us in case we didn't get the point: "Hide your bourgeois flag, or you'll get the smugness beaten out of you long before they find out you're a woman." We're on notice that she's on notice.

Yet not three pages later, Vincent is sneering at the playground of the lower class, savaging the bowling alley as only a bourgeois could: "There were the smells; cigarette smoke, varnish, machine oil, leaky toilets, old candy wrappers and accumulated public muck."

That's before she meets the guys who have agreed to let her join their league. When she does meet them, out again comes the smugness. Here's part of her account of meeting Jim, one of the most sympathetic and interesting guys in Vincent's book: "His face was permanently flushed and pocked with open pores; a cigarette-, alcohol- and occupation-induced complexion …" His job, his Marlboro, his bottle of beer -- that's Jim's "masculinity," and his face is stained with it.

When it comes to the expected gay bashing, chauvinist, racist, etc., behavior of the guys in her league -- the painfully obvious objective of Ned's first gender-bending expedition -- Vincent has disappointing news for the readers back in New York. These trailer-park beer guzzlers are among the most enlightened and tolerant Americans ever born. They "never spoke disrespectfully of black people." "Gay people and their affairs didn't much interest them." Outrageous jokes are introduced with an "appropriate caveat." Even as these men slip out to the occasional titty bar, they "cherished their wives" and spoke about them with "absolute reverence."

Most of all, they reward Ned's appalling bowling scores with grace and aplomb, even offering a face-saving joke as he brings down the whole team. This surprises Vincent: "I had expected these guys to be filled with virulent hatred for anyone who wasn't like them."

It turns out their only consistent prejudice is against "comparatively wealthy clients for whom they'd done construction, plumbing or carpentry work[.]" People just like Norah Vincent.

When Vincent does manage to drop the class stuff, she occasionally shares good insights into minor episodes of male behavior. But these pale in comparison to the times she simply reproduces the best stories of her bowling teammates, word for word. Here is Jim talking:

"I remember when I was in the army, I was drunk off my ass as usual. And there was this huge guy playin' pool in the bar I was in. And I don't know why, but I just flicked a beer coaster at him, and it hit him right in the back of the head. And he turned around really slowly and he looked down at me and he said in this really tired way 'Do we really need to do this tonight?' And I said, 'Nah, you're right. We don't. Sorry.' So he turned around, and fuck me if I didn't just throw another one and hit him again, right in the back of the head. I don't know why I did it. No fuckin' idea. And I knew when I did it that he was gonna kick my ass, so I turned around and tried to run, and I slipped in a puddle of beer and fell on my face, and he just bashed the shit out of me. And the funniest thing about it was that the whole time he was punching me, he kept apologizing to me for having to do it."

Pretty good story, right? Sure, there's plenty to say about masculinity here. But there's no need to. Jim says it all quite well himself, undistilled by Vincent's prejudices. And her attempt to extract the gender wisdom from Jim's tale immediately afterward offers a sharp contrast and reminder about how dull Norah Vincent and her book premise really are: "[Among the bowling teammates], only Jim had enough perspective to admit the folly of his masculinity, and to fully appreciate the absurdity of brutish necessity in the male-on-male world."

Vincent just can't let Jim be Jim. And because she finds him likeable, she wants Jim to be more like her, wondering "what he might have done with himself if he'd gone to college instead of joining the army at seventeen," instead of accepting him to be the charismatic and funny, hopeless wretch that he is.

Ultimately, Vincent is forced to concede that despite her disguise and her attempts to understand her teammates, she doesn't arrive at any secret histories or absolute truths about what they reveal as a type: "Nothing mysterious really."

Six months of this bores Vincent so much she decides to share her secret with the boys -- that their evenings were her experiment, that she's a woman and a lesbian. And surprise, surprise, "Everybody liked Norah much more than Ned, even knowing that I was a dyke dressed as a man." Vincent won't find that kind of class at her local yoga parlor in Greenwich Village.

Her teammates still let her hang out with them, don't care that she still shows up dressed as Ned and, most amazing of all, they don't rush and scream and tell all the other teams in the league that -- holy shit! -- there's a transvestite bowling in lane four.

After witnessing the premise of her book sink into the sand with the bowling league, I half-expected Vincent to tell the reader that, while there are 200 pages to go in her book, she was going to drop this Ned act.

But I was wrong. Norah Vincent proceeded to visit the most tricked-out male clichés imaginable -- strip bars, sports bars and monasteries. Some of Ned's encounters had me fuming mad at her desire to force gender to explain all of life's problems. Like when a washed-up female stripper gives Ned a show. It's another bourgeois-meets-prole moment that Vincent mistakes for the secret truth hidden in the "male sexual psyche."

Vincent is disgusted by the actual show itself; the stripper's aged body and "squalor" are so unpleasant for her -- she assails the stripper's breast size, twice -- that she tries to hasten its end, flinging her dollar at the dancer. But with safe distance between her and the unfortunate event she can safely start her gender sermonizing. As with the bowling team, the class issue dawns on Vincent momentarily: "I couldn't help measuring [the stripper's] life against my own, which now seemed shamefully privileged and unearned by comparison."

But then she starts staring at the guys in the parlor "taking in these women like a drug." And that gets her all riled up. Vincent's heartstrings being tied to systerhood, not economic pain, she drops the thread of privilege and class as quickly as she raised it: moments later she feels the "comparison collapse." Vincent suddenly comes to a contrary conclusion "that the circumstances of [the stripper's] life or of [her own] didn't make any difference in this place."

It takes a heavy dose of delusion and distance from normal American experience for Norah Vincent to believe that the stripper's economic standing has nothing to do with why she might work that job. And for Vincent herself, dressed up as a man, watching this poor stripper dance to fill up a chapter of her book, to be able to ignore what it is that sets her apart from the stripper. But in Vincent's defense, how else could a genderist book premise like hers survive these kind of "circumstances" without denying them outright? Nevermind that it couldn't; Vincent had a book to write.

The big and scary truth in Self-Made Man is that Norah Vincent lifted some weights, glued some hair on her face, put on a tight sports bra, and the guys she encountered -- from bowling alley buffs to priests -- bought her story. The women who gave her lap dances and who flirted with her at singles bars did too.

What does that say about how different men and women are?

We can throw the premises of dissemblance in Ehrenreich and Griffin's books in at this point as well.

If Vincent hadn't become just a man, but a black man with a minimum wage job -- a totally plausible immersion story, given how successful these three authors were at fooling their new acquaintances -- what would that say about how different we are?

Yikes. Human theater everywhere: We're all the same.

Jan Frel is an AlterNet staff writer.