Man Alive / Thomas Page McBee

Laura Robledo

Human Events What does it mean to be a man? This is the question writer Thomas Page McBee poses in his memoir Man Alive, the latest release from the Sister Spit series published by City Lights. For those of you unfamiliar with this series, Sister Spit is a collection of writing from emerging writers and artists highlighting gender and other cultural topics.

Transitioning back and forth between memories of his childhood in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and living in Oakland, California as an adult, McBee draws the reader in from page one with his tender prose, as he searches for the answer to his question of what it means to be a man. Throughout this search, McBee focuses on two male figures in particular: his abusive father, and an anonymous man who mugged him one late evening in Oakland. (McBee’s 172 page book is a dark and heavy read at times.) McBee opens with a scene of his girlfriend discussing the definition of what it means to be a man today, then immediately switches in the next chapter to a time when his mother sat him down at the table as a young child and implored him to open up about his abusive father. From there we move onto other charged scenes from McBee’s life, such as the moment he is held up at gunpoint, and the time he meets his father at a cafe for the first time in twenty years. These are raw memories that draw the reader in to feel the fear and anxiety that McBee himself feels in these moments.

Despite such emotionally charged material, which could have made this book little more than a vehicle for formless anger and revengeful desires, McBee’s writing style takes this book in an entirely different direction—a testament to how talented a writer McBee is. Each word and sentence is crafted with tender, sweet emotion. His prose is clean and concise. He is able to evoke emotion in paltry few words. The writing style itself exemplifies what Man Alive is about: finding beauty, love, and self-acceptance in even the most traumatic experiences.

The backdrop of McBee’s story is his transition into a man, as he become Thomas, which is the name he picks for himself. He voices his anxiety over taking testosterone shots, and how these will change his life and his relationship with his girlfriend Parker; these moments are honest and are likely to connect particularly with transgender readers. While not every reader will be able to personally relate to the transgender themes of the book, McBee’s skill comes through in how he connects this part of the story to more universal themes of personal journey and self-discovery. At one point McBee writes: “our stories intersect and some of them intertwine but I couldn’t be responsible for any but my own.” Yes, perhaps this book is categorized as a transgender piece, but we are all constructing ourselves, and Man Alive has the power to draw in any reader on a search for self-identity, who is trying to learn to accept both the bad and good experiences of life.

McBee breaks the book into parts: Freeze, Flight, Fight, Rites and Man Alive. In each section, McBee focuses on a new step in his discovery of what it means to be a man and what that means for his own life. Throughout he uses the metaphor of inertia—for instance, Newton’s maxim that “once a body is in motion, it stays in motion”— and despite being shopworn, these phrases capture the emotion behind McBee’s journey of peeling away his haunted childhood memories and discovering a vibrant life of self-acceptance and love.

Man Alive deserves wide attention. It’s an inspiring, raw tale of a man searching for an identity. McBee is a truly talented writer, one whom readers should continue to look out for well into the future.



Reviews


2015
2014
2013

Beyond and Back: Writing That Risks
Robert O'Connell


Making Americans: Children’s Literature from 1930 to 1960
Charlie Kennedy


Sunday Best: People on Sunday by Geoffrey G. O'Brien
John Gibbs


I've Always Wanted to Use Malarky in a Review: Trances of the Blast by Mary Ruefle
Cassie Duggan


The Streets of Buffalo, à la Carte: Thea Swanson’s The Curious Solitude of Anise
Charles Haddox


A Witty and Delightfully Engaging Collection: Ten Years in the Tub by Nick Hornby
Charlie Kennedy


Spanish Author's Debut in English: End of Love by Marcos Giralt Torrente
Erin Berman


A Riveting Read: Emmaus by Alessandro Baricco
Erin Berman


We'll Be the Last Ones to Let You Down: Memoir of a Gravedigger's Daughter by Rachael Hanel
J. Haley Campbell


This Feeling of Empathy: Participants by Andrew Keating
Joe Ransom


Portrait of a Poet: Coming Close: Forty Essays on Philip Levine
John Gibbs


Rediscovering Levine: A Reissue of Sweet Will
John Gibbs


Meandering Toward Meaning in Michelle Herman's Stories We Tell Ourselves
Morgan Vogel Chinnock


Skin I'm In: Ariana Nadia Nash's Instructions for Preparing Your Skin
Cassie Duggan


SplitLevel Texts: A Cruel Nirvana and The Treatment of Monuments
Patrick James Dunagan


A Race to Understand a Troubled Place: Michael Lavigne's The Wanting
Alex Rieser


Lenore Zion's Wicked Smart Novel Stupid Children
J. Haley Campbell


Into the Tangled Dark: Jay Ponteri's Wedlocked
Morgan Vogel Chinnock


Stalking Wolf Haas's The Bone Man
Charlie Kennedy


A Painter's Poet: Karen Rigby's Chinoiserie
John Gibbs


Bridging the Gaps: Ways of Going Home by Alejandro Zambra
Erin Berman


Manu Joseph's The Illicit Happiness of Other People, A Novel
Charlie Kennedy


Courttia Newland Explores London’s Social Rifts in The Gospel According to Cane
Andrew Blackman


A Sharp Debut: Jamie Sharpe's Animal Husbandry Today
John Gibbs


Susan Wheeler's Meme: A Contagious Book of Poems
Cassie Duggan


Joshua Cohen's Verbal Gymnastics: Four New Messages
Juli C. Lasselle


2012

The Grittiness and Challenge of Zadie Smith's NW
Charlie Kennedy


Minnesotan Dragons in Mindy Mejia’s The Dragon Keeper
Inge Lamboo


Pianos and Poems: Oni Buchanan's Must a Violence
John Gibbs


Verbal Tumbleweeds: Davy Rothbart's My Heart is an Idiot
Catherine Wargo Roberts


As Labyrinthine as the Streets of Moscow: Caroline Clark's Saying Yes in Russian
paul kavanagh


A Bell Ringing in a Place Thought Dead: Safe as Houses
Michelle Boise


Purple Passages and Captain Poetry’s Sucker Punch
Patrick James Dunagan


On Lecturing Poetically: Ruefle's Madness, Rack, and Honey
John Gibbs


Travels in Puerto Rico
Charlie Kennedy


Breaking New Ground: Between Heaven and Here
Erin Berman


Invest in Stock: Norman Stock's Pickled Dreams Naked
John Gibbs


As if it Fell from the Sun: Celebrating Poetry from EtherDome
Chelsea DeRose


They, Too, Sing America: Buckley & Ott's Poets' Guide to America
John Gibbs


Renegade Documents:
Tlemcen or Places of Writing & Opera Omnia
Patrick James Dunagan


Something Out There: Catherine Chandler’s This Sweet Order
Jonathon Penny


Jennifer Miller's Daring The Year of the Gadfly
Eric D. Goodman


Coastal Poetry: Dear Oxygen and California Redemption Value
Patrick James Dunagan


The Cosmology of Transience: Kevin Opstedal's California Redemption Value
Alex Rieser


Collective Memory in Evelyn Posamentier's Poland at the Door
Trena Machado


We Have to Stop Being Fearful: Paul Kavanagh’s Iceberg
Charles Haddox


A Life's Work: Sheer Indefinite by Skip Fox
Patrick James Dunagan


Syntax as Music in Arisa White’s Hurrah’s Nest
Karen Biscopink


Alone Together: David Landrum's The Impossibility of Epithalamia
Robbi Nester


Nature, Terror and Renewal in Zilka Joseph’s What Dread
Michelle Regalado Deatrick


Meditating on Aline Soules' Meditation on Woman
Carol Smallwood


A Little Night Music: Kenneth Frost’s Night Flight
Christina Cook


The Joy of Carol Smallwood's Compartments: Poems on Nature, Femininity and Other Realms
Aline Soules


2011