The married kind 

The road to Sweet William

Marriage has a way of making even the sunniest men go sour. It inspired Ralph Waldo Emerson, America’s great avatar of romanticism, to gripe that “a man’s wife has more power over him than the state has.” The late Johnny Carson summed up his distaste for being hitched this way: “If variety is the spice of life, marriage is the big can of leftover Spam.”

With such skepticism kicking about a man’s internal peanut gallery, readers will be surprised by what’s inside Committed, Chris Knutsen’s and David Kuhn’s lively anthology of essays by men writing about love, commitment and marriage. Although the book arrives so redolent with manliness you practically expect the pages to smell like cologne adverts, what’s on the pages turns out to smell like roses and chocolate. Men, those freedom-loving buggers, want romance after all.

Well, perhaps not Valentine’s Day-style romance, but they at least think about it, which is more credit than they normally get. All 18 contributors assembled here have walked the tightrope of romance to commitment and, by writing about it, have done so while assiduously staring at that great drop down. If their collective voices have anything to say, it is that men can and do think deeply about commitment—even if they are, like contributor Andy Borowitz, hewing to the notion that bachelorhood is like gold (its value, over time, will always go up).

It’s hardly surprising most of the contributors should be so unafraid of commitment. After all, in the past decade men have been roped into Jack and Jill showers, Boys Night Out, close consultation on the letter pressing of their wedding invitations, low-rise jeans and stag parties devoid of naked women. This is not to say the old way was a good way, just that we now live in a world where it’s just as likely that the woman is the one who wears her college baseball cap into her late 20s while her man knows “Sex and the City” episodes by heart.

Committed is refreshingly devoid of hand wringing over this obscuring of gender roles. In fact, given that many contributors here are nearing middle age or smack in its not-so-sweet spot, the book shows how fluid these roles were in the first place. Rick Moody sounds like that quintessential bad news woman in “Companion Species,” about how he transformed himself from a denizen of heartbreak hotel into a man capable of caring for cats, while Rich Cohen goes practically gooey over what fatherhood did to his level of seriousness. (The half-dozen references to sex in his piece read less like the record of a man with sex on the brain and more like the signposts of a man signaling to the rest of us that he is still, in fact, a Man.)

Both one-time employees of The New Yorker, Kuhn and Knutsen must have pulled out the stops for Committed, as not only is all the work collected here original, but it’s by terrific writers, too. David Sedaris contributes a hilarious piece (serialized last November in The New Yorker) about how true love is having your lover lance a boil (which chore earns Sedaris’ boyfriend the nickname Sir Lance a Lot). Geoff Dyer tells the possibly not entirely true story of how a marriage that began with a trip to the Burning Man festival in Nevada is going strong still. Finally, in what might be the book’s most elegant piece, John Seabrook recounts the story of how his parents met on a ship cruising to Monaco for Grace Kelly’s wedding.

Like Seabrook’s and Dyer’s and Sedaris’ pieces, the best work in Committed has a lived-in feel. Men’s magazines basically encourage their readers’ regression while giving lip service to new sexual dynamics (and new products, if possible, too). But knowledge about the heart can so rarely be written to word count on deadline. What’s nice about an anthology like this is that it gives writers the chance to roam free and try on conceits a bit more elaborate than a magazine might allow, or slightly more personal than a writer might want circulated to 1.2 million newsstands, such as Jonathan Burnham Schwartz’s essay about how the love of his life and anti-anxiety medication arrived at roughly the same time.

If there is any theme uniting these essays it is not—as one might expect—freedom, but indeed arrival. Time and again, these writers greet a new relationship like it’s a ship docking to port that they hadn’t realized was ever at sea. In many cases, it seems to happen without their looking. “So much of experience is quiet,” Schwartz writes, “nearly invisible. It might take the form of waiting, half-unaware, for the first sign of a change of season; of an exploratory, wordless leaning into mutual passion.” In this unsentimental but soulful anthology, Kuhn and Knutsen have snookered 18 men into committing that passion to words; the results are sometimes sour, but more often sweet.

arts@missoulanews.com

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