Richard Babcock on Phil Christman’s Book “How to Be Normal”

From a Wall Street Journal review by Richard Babcock of the book by Phil Christman titled “How to Be Normal”:

Phil Christman confesses at one point in his essay collection “How to Be Normal” that his conservative, fundamentalist Baptist father probably considers his son an “easily outraged prig.” Though I suspect I have little in common with the old man, I understand exactly his judgment.

In the book, Mr. Christman explores a series of concepts—masculinity, whiteness, religion, among them—and comes at his analyses from a leftist perspective that sometimes veers into contempt. (“We are ruled, locally and nationally and internationally, by greedy and silly people . . .”) Though still a practicing Christian, Mr. Christman defected from a fundamentalist childhood, a break that often informs his writing. He frequently sounds exasperated and angry. His father, as Mr. Christman acknowledges, endures his son’s arguments from the other side of a theological divide with studied patience.

But similar patience can pay off for a reader of these essays. Mr. Christman titles the collection and each of the essays with the “How to” format, but he points out in an author’s note that this is not an advice manual. Rather, he takes on a subject and examines the generalizations and shibboleths clinging to it, puncturing them with personal experience and his intellect—and with considerable research to back them up.

In “How to Be a Man,” for example, he laments the discomfort he suffers—from strenuous workouts, needlessly grueling chores and such—to uphold some “showboating” notion of masculinity. He considers the theory that the masculine imperative grows from an urge to protect, presumably loved ones, but discounts the idea with an array of arguments. Providing protection of that sort invokes male dominance—the dreaded gender hierarchy. It often leads to violence, he writes, and typically fails. Anyway, statistics show that women work harder than men, so who’s really doing the protecting? He concludes the essay by describing a spot of manly bravado that was the “stupidest thing I ever did.” A youth snatched his wife’s purse, and Mr. Christman chased the thief and his cohort into an alley, where the chivalrous essayist promptly lost his wallet at gunpoint.

In an essay dealing largely with his turn from a dogmatic Baptist creed in his late teens, Mr. Christman scathingly contends that believers aggressively deploy misinformation and warped reasoning to defend their religion. But the lesson produced turns out to be aimed squarely at intellectual hubris: “What growing up fundamentalist helped me learn early on, is how terribly wrong you can be while thinking very hard.”

Mr. Christman, who teaches writing at the University of Michigan, remarks often on his small town, Michigan roots. His earlier essay collection, “Midwest Futures,” explores the history and myths attached to the center of the country. He argues that the newly formed American government didn’t so much see the Midwest frontier as a future home for settlers (and certainly not as the home for the peoples who then lived there), but as a “fund.” A resource to be exploited. By his account, that financial perspective has infused the region, a particularly troubling development because “Midwestern” has turned into a synonym for “normal.” He strikes a more sanguine note at the end, hoping that conscientious citizens can transform the Midwest “from fund to place”—one that welcomes all and lives within its “physical limits.”

He returns to the Midwest in the brief final essay in his latest collection. Here, in “How to be Midwestern,” Mr. Christman is far less polemic. He talks about jogging through a familiar, flat, bland landscape, but coming to see it as complex and strange—anything but banal. Trying to capture it, he quotes Willa Cather: “Between that earth and that sky I felt erased, blotted out.” Such insights result in a suitably humble ethic: “I try not to thrust limiting assumptions on other people; I try to let people surprise me.”

Throughout “How to Be Normal,” the voice is earnest and intense, often spiraling around a subject, here and there punctuated by glancing, sometimes arcane cultural references. For this reader, Mr. Christman’s paragraphs occasionally require a second reading, an exercise that’s almost always rewarding.

And then he delivers a crystalline passage such as this, the opening of “How to Be Married”:

“For some of us, there’s a season on the cusp of young adulthood—around sixteen or seventeen—when all the deepest failings and yearnings of your nature announce themselves one after the other, like symphonic themes that the rest of your life will restate with greater complexity, perhaps, but never again so pristinely.”

Mr. Christman goes on to tell the story of his own fulfilling relationship to a woman with whom he fell in love as a teen. They drifted apart, felicitously reconnected and finally married. By his account, she holds in her heart and mind both the love-stunned teenager he was and the complicated 40-something man he has become.

At the beginning of “How to Be Midwestern,” Mr. Christman writes, “I think nothing has shadowed my development as a writer more than my failure to have an interesting childhood.” Yet in anecdotes and asides, he drops in scraps that belie that assessment: His father, himself abused as a child, works assiduously to treat his son with kindness. Their conflicts are soothed by a common passion for bad movies. (“Zontar, the Thing from Venus” to the rescue!) As a teenager, Mr. Christman impregnated his girlfriend and had to apologize to the congregation of his fundamentalist Baptist church. His sister’s eighth-grade class played Led Zeppelin songs backward to sound out the hidden Satanic messages.

His assessment of his childhood also belies a Whitmanesque point he returns to several times in “How to Be Normal”—that we contain within us a full range of selves, “sheaves” to be gathered. We are all like one of his beloved bad movies, “desperate and self-deluded and wholly compelling.” In short, that tedious boyhood in a small Midwestern town produced a writer who has much more to offer us.

But as for the promise of comfort suggested by the title of this book, Mr. Christman has some disappointing news: “There is no normal to get back to anymore.”

Richard Babcock is a novelist and the former editor of Chicago magazine.

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