AFTER years of quiet confusion, American men are telling their stories. Sometimes the result is invigorating. Other times it's like aiming a mirror at a group of angry gorillas. Nevertheless, the dialogue has made it out of the sweat lodge and into the mainstream.
``The Book of Guys,'' by Garrison Keillor, and ``Working Men,'' by Michael Dorris, are the latest initiates into the fraternity of ``male'' literature. Both writers have men on their minds, but that's where the similarity ends.
Keillor, host of a weekly radio show and author of ``Radio Days,'' uses ``The Book of Guys'' to flex his funny muscles. Throughout the book, his talent for exposing societal absurdities shines, and one doesn't have to be a Midwesterner to appreciate his biting satire of the region. If you like to mark memorable passages by folding down corners, beware: Keillor can be funny on both sides of the page.
His best story is ``Lonesome Shorty,'' an account of a cowboy who gets fed up with life on the range and decides to settle down. ``That Old Picayune-Moon,'' the tale of a mayor harassed by a zealous newspaper editor, and the book's lengthy introduction also contain flashes of comic genius. And at times, Keillor's characters express real insights: ``Don Giovanni'' points up the difficulty many men have with competing desires for family and freedom.
But behind the giggles, the reader can hear the unmistakable whir of an irritated guy grinding a few axes. Keillor uses ``The Book of Guys'' to take swings at everybody and perhaps to chop away at the cute, folksy image he cultivated in his most popular book, ``Lake Wobegon Days.''
In ``Winthrop Thorpe Tortuga,'' Keillor tells the story of a man who balances a laissez faire attitude toward his family with a penchant for ``random acts of cruelty.'' After counseling his wife about her adulterous affair and cooking breakfast for his teenage daughter's sleep-over boyfriend, Winthrop soothes himself by, among other things, calling in a bomb threat to a home for indigent actors.
Winthrop's behavior is amusing at first, but the novelty wanes as Keillor stirs in too many cruel, off-color jokes.
Other stories lack focus. ``George Bush'' has a clever premise -
the former president going fishing with Willie Horton - but quickly deteriorates into a pointless political satire. In the middle of ``Earl Grey'' and ``Roy Bradley, Boy Broadcaster,'' the reader can sense Keillor's concentration fading. ``The Chuck Show of Television'' barely rivals Howard Stern for sophistication.
On the whole, Keillor's portrait of men is grim. His protagonists come in three categories: hapless and gentle, hapless and depressed, or hapless and cruel, in descending order of appeal. They have trouble with family life, traditional values, and societal conventions, and they appear to be content only in rare moments of glory.
In addition, female characters appear almost solely as bossy matrons or sex objects. ``Buddy the Leper'' is particularly difficult in this regard.
If you read this book, your level of pleasure may not surpass your threshold for vulgarity.
By contrast, Dorris's ``Working Men'' is good reading for everybody. Penned by the author of numerous volumes of nonfiction and the novel ``A Yellow Raft in Blue Water,'' this collection of short stories reflects the quiet, persistent craftsmanship that has brought Dorris's work national attention.
Dorris's prose gleams with a high polish and his portrayals of ordinary men and women are three-dimensional, complex, and accurate down to the steel-toed boots.
With his measured style, Dorris gets men right. In one of his best stories, ``Qiana,'' he describes a snowplow-driver's preparations for winter:
``He had spent a week on the snowplow's engine, had driven the back roads slowly, alert for soft shoulders or runoff ruts that might catch a wheel. Alone on these reconnaissance trips, Normand regarded himself as a professional, an expert who saw what ordinary men might miss, and when he identified a loose bed or an unsupported erosion, he congratulated his keen eye and forgave himself his sins.''
Other notable stories include ``The Benchmark,'' about the way a pondmaker blurs the line between his philosophy of labor and his personal life; ``Shining Agate,'' the story of an anthropologist's struggle to connect with his native Alaskan subjects; and ``Oui,'' a luminous, triumphant story about love's unpredictability that Dorris cleverly disguises until the end.
Although working men aren't always the main characters of his stories, Dorris paints their portraits indelibly.
At first glance, these men don't fare much better than Keillor's bunch: There are no heroes and the men are in turn indecisive, insensitive, unambitious, and pathetic. Sometimes they're even too hopeless to laugh at. But for all their faults, Dorris's male characters have as many points of strength. They look for solutions, for ways out, and occasionally find the happiness they seek - even if they back into it.
So don't put these two books on the same shelf of your literary pantry. When the male gender gets you down, grab ``The Book of Guys'' as you would a box of Cheez-Its. But when you're ready for the earthy flavor of a baked potato, reach for ``Working Men.'' Either way, Dorris and Keillor can help to feed the hunger of a thinking guy.