A Test of Manhood, Long Before #MeToo

Posted May 10, 2018 7:34 p.m. EDT

When I was 14, I lied about my age to get a job maintaining the grounds of a nasty old man’s Hudson Valley estate. Older boys who wanted the job hassled me. By the end of that painful and exhilarating summer more than six decades ago, I had lost some 40 pounds and determined that the experience would be my first novel, a Hemingway-esque Farewell to Fat.

But it took 25 years to write the young adult book “One Fat Summer,” and it wasn’t my first novel because of the emotions evoked by bullies, girls and being fat. It was too hard to be open and honest and still feel manly.

Rereading it recently for the first time in many years, after screening “Measure of a Man,” the movie version due out this month, I still loved most of it but was struck by how certain I sounded back then about things I’m no longer so sure about. I was surprised to find that my attitudes have moved closer to the sensibilities of the film, which I had no hand in.

At 14, although fatter and more bookish than most, I had the typical sensibilities of a 1950s pre-man. I thought that men had futures, unlike women, whom it would be our responsibility to protect, support and guide as they made our homes, raised our children and cheer-leaded our careers. My own parents had started out seemingly equal, as city public schoolteachers, but thanks to maternity leaves and my mother’s deference to my father’s ambition, he had ascended into administration while she remained in the classroom.

There were boy codes to follow in my Queens neighborhood. I couldn’t credibly act tough, but I knew I had to fight if you called me “Lippo the Hippo,” and that exchanging confidences with other boys was risky — we were trained to be competitive and any vulnerability would be exploited. Revenge was a given; eventually, a real man had to pay back every slight if he wanted to be respected. John Wayne’s roles were models.

To dodge homophobic epithets, which were more about being girlie than gay, we would retell dirty jokes we didn’t understand, disparage girls we liked and feign more interest in sports than we felt.

Worst of all, and ever more haunting in the #MeToo era now, we became bystanders, if not enablers, to the boys who harassed girls by making rude remarks, groping them, pushing them up against the schoolyard fence. How did we let that happen, even in sixth grade, after all those books and movies we had consumed about the heroic male saviors of women and children? I cringe to think we got vicarious thrills. But the darkest boy secret was this: we were afraid those bullies would turn on us if diverted from harassing women. That fear would last the rest of our lives, carried into the military, business, medicine, the law, journalism and academia. Those last two industries spend a great deal of energy examining and then carping about popular culture while only recently starting to systemically criticize the macho jock culture that generates male toxicity.

So the lawn job became my test of manhood. I wasn’t sure I could survive it, much less do it properly. My employer was exacting and critical, bullying. He yelled as he stalked behind me and the mower. He made me recut scraggly patches of grass on my own time. Then there were the lurking bullies who wanted the job I had underpriced. There was a girl, of course, I was desperate to impress.

Even as I lived that summer, I was writing it in my head, mostly as a science-fiction tale of a boy transported to another planet where he fought monsters powered by chlorophyll. I avoided the true guts of the story, the shame of a bloated body, which signified my lack of will power, determination and pride. That’s what alpha males, particularly the jocks, had and why boys like me idolized and resented them.

I couldn’t get close to my own story until I was in my late 30s, a father, no longer a Hemingway fan, a seasoned sports writer who understood that while most jocks considered us nonjocks not much better than girls, they themselves could be less than manly in their acquiescence to their bullies — coaches, owners and superstars.

There were other lessons. When I was 19, a copy boy at The Times. I would watch the movie editor lurch back from lunch and feel his way to his desk through female secretaries and news assistants. It was clearly unwelcome physical attention. When I finally asked why the women didn’t swat him away, they were at first embarrassed by the question, then resigned and angry; any hope of promotion would come through the occasional feature story or review someone like him could toss their way. Too vulnerable myself to play John Wayne and swat him away, I felt I might as well be back in the schoolyard.

There would be other adult bullies, in television news particularly, where I found executive producers who reveled in using vile and provocative language in front of female subordinates, almost daring the men to do something. I complained once and female producers shut me down; if I couldn’t depose the lout, they said, I’d just be making trouble for them.

In “One Fat Summer,” my glorified semi-autobiographical hero, Bobby, stood up to the bullies and survived their beating, an important lesson for males then. Sometimes you just have to suck it up. He endured the summer in what he thought was manly fashion, hanging tough, taking risks and trusting only himself. No wonder at the end, the girl liked him back. At least in the novel.

Most of the best mail about the book was from girls, including a skinny 6-footer from Iowa who said she understood exactly what a smart-aleck New York City fat boy had gone through.

A few years ago, a screenwriter, David Scearce, who had read the novel in middle school, optioned it and reset the story 24 years later, in 1976, and turned my nasty old man into a stern but wise Holocaust survivor (Donald Sutherland) who admitted to having been bullied by “the worst.” Bobby’s mom (Judy Greer) was now studying to get into law school, not just to earn a teaching license, which threatened his dad (Luke Wilson) into a ruinous financial blunder. The lead bully (Beau Knapp) was now apparently suffering from Vietnam War-inflicted post-traumatic stress disorder and fears that he would be outed as gay.

I liked it. People have to find common ground, not revenge, and trust each other if we are ever to escape this cycle of oppressive brutality. #MeToo is heroic, but not enough to save us all until men clean up their frat houses.

One big book-to-movie revision for me was Bobby’s body. Instead of losing 40 pounds and feeling accomplishment and new self-esteem, he became comfortable enough to take off his shirt at the beach. No fat shaming for him. And the girl still liked him back.

I wish my own nasty old man had been as wise as the screen version when he advised Bobby (Blake Cooper) that while no man is ever truly sure he made the right decisions, “the measure of a man is his ability to navigate to the proper shore during the worst of the storm.” That might have helped through all my summers to come.