Tag: Collin Mitchell

Book Review: A Better Man: A (Mostly Serious) Letter to My Son

by Collin Mitchell

In A Better Man: A (Mostly Serious) Letter to My Son, actor and comedian Michael Ian Black explores the concept of toxic masculinity and what it’s doing to American families and society.

People are touchy (especially those who have never brushed with racist cops or a sexist boss), and even for the newly woke and well-meaning man, the question of, “what can I do to help?” is tangled up in history, falling somewhere between the great man theory and the white man’s burden. A man’s help is a wrought proposition. Because it is presumptuous for us to think, for example, that the BP’s of the world could be capable of cleaning up after themselves just to voluntarily let go of the fossil-fuel thing as soon as the last bird is spruced up and put back to sea.

But then again, why do we think this? Maybe we’ve been looking at the situation wrong, too hung up on the cynicism associated with men’s behavior. It’s perhaps not so much a matter of men getting out of the way (you may though, if you like), but rather, out of their own way, something Black explores well in this book that is part letter, part memoir.

Known for playing dry, socially removed characters for much of his TV and movie career, Michael Ian Black admits that he drew on this “stone-faced” persona until he realized there was “something fundamentally dishonest about it.” “I look more like my mom,” he writes. “But I have never felt possessed by her in the same way I do when I discover my dead father’s expression on my face.” Being a man is learned, he argues, a prescriptive measure, and it’s his ease of language and careful understanding of his own role as a father and celebrity that makes his book relatable for the reader who can chew gum and walk at the same time. Someone who can say: I am not a racist, misogynist, sex-entitled bore, but I am not immune to it either.

There is a sense throughout the book that America has walked itself into a corner, where choices on gendered behavior are either/or without much room for an alternative. This of course is changing, but certainly not overnight. Black, who is not yet fifty, reminds us that masculinity is not as fluid as so many commercials, think-pieces, and TV shows might lead us to believe. “The brain darts to ‘boy stuff’,” he writes of the unconscious impulses he had after learning he and his wife were having a son. The point he makes here, and through much of the book, isn’t that men’s train of thought is necessarily bad, but rather it’s how they act on it. Unraveling thousands of years of gender norms, often opportunistic and violent, is a lot to take on, but making oneself aware of it isn’t. “Sometimes it’s not easy to distinguish between the things that have value and the things that don’t,” Black writes of the challenge many people, especially older generations, face to understand cultural change.

At the same time, Black depends on what seems like outdated ideas about gender, writing, “[I]t wouldn’t be unusual to hear somebody say that a hard-charging stockbroker is a ‘real man’ but a stay-at-home dad is not.” For this reviewer, men as primary caregivers feels celebrated in 2020, even when stay-at-home dads don’t have a job. But Black’s experience tells me I could be wrong. Black has a large social media presence and has, over the years, opened himself up to no shortage of trolling, mostly questioning his manhood. Perhaps he is right to start the book at the collective bottom.

Black is self-effacing about sex and he writes openly about his own caution with early relationships. On splitting the dinner check, he carefully taps into a sense of remorse: “I didn’t want my dates to think that I expected anything from them in return for dinner and a movie; I was trying to protect my dates from, I guess, me.” This section is illuminating, and Black carefully prescribes his thoughts on the ambiguity of “sexual courtship,” while acknowledging that men are not all “sex-crazed goons,” though it would be nonsense to think that average young men don’t think about sex all the time. A problem (one of many) about sex between men and women is a lack of talking. This is an oversimplification of something Black does very well to write about, but in the end, good sex for men—and it was refreshing to see this in print—comes from the inside. As a letter to his son, Black is successful here in making plain what many young men don’t want to admit: that they actually care about the other person, even if it’s just for a night. “‘Can I kiss you?’ does not have to be a buzzkill,” he writes. “And if she says no, congratulations! You’ve just avoided sexual assault.”

A little self-awareness goes a long way according to Black’s account of the male psyche. And you don’t have to step on anyone’s toes in doing so. At its core, A Better Man is one white male talking to another about responsibility—a conversation for the ages. Yet it turns the highly wrought advice of, don’t be scared, you’re a man, on its head. Rather it’s, ask for help, you’re a person. The book effectively asks the question of what it means to be a man and what that inquiry of identity is doing to men and society at large. The answer is a lot. Some of it good, some of it bad, but regardless, you have to take responsibility for how you treat others. Or else no one is going to like you. That’s incredibly good advice from one dad to another. (Algonquin Books, $24.95)

Collin Mitchell is a student in the UC Riverside Low Residency MFA program and the author of The Faithful, a historical biography of the opera composer Giuseppe Verdi. He lives in Palm Desert with his wife and son.

TCR Talks with Billy Lombardo

By Collin Mitchell

I call writer Billy Lombardo at his home in Chicago to talk about his novel, Morning Will Come. “How’s the summer been?” I ask him.

“I’ve been doing some weird work,” he says, going outside to talk. His dad recently moved in due to COVID-19 and it’s a full house.  He pauses and I can hear his dog barking from inside. “Stuff I didn’t expect to do.”

Lombardo’s voice is distinctive, like listening to David Sedaris on audiobook. We talk about teaching, especially teaching fiction to teenagers online. “They’re high energy kids, self-directed and brilliant and all of a sudden whatever plans they had are cancelled,” he says about student life during a pandemic. After twenty-five years, Lombardo recently retired from his career at The Latin School of Chicago so he could put more time into Polyphony Lit, a literary magazine he founded, as well as focus on his own work. To date he’s published two novels, Morning Will Come and The Man With Two Arms, and a short story collection, The Logic of a Rose.

When I ask him about his writing process, he answers without hesitation: “Absolute discovery. I love that. I started writing something the other day and I never got to the thing I wanted to write. I had a couple thousand words before I was even coming close to this thing I sat down to do.”

“Which wasn’t even the thing you were thinking,” I say.

He laughs. “Yeah, it almost never happens that way.” The pattern of discovery is echoed by the publication history of Lombardo’s haunting novel, Morning Will Come. The book began as a loose collection of short stories before his editor, Gina Frangello, encouraged him to combine them into a single story. Personal experience, a friend’s estranged marriage, and grindstone imagination gathered the disparate threads into something self-contained. “How was that?” I ask. “Stringing them together?”

“There was a lot of styling that I had to do with the stories to get them all together. I knew what it was to raise boys and I knew what it was to raise them in a difficult marriage and that thread was my own grief that I spoke about in this other way.”

Grief in Morning Will Come pivots around the disappearance of Isabel, the teenage daughter of Alan and Audrey, the novel’s protagonists. With busy careers and two young boys to raise, their unrecognized pain turns into a weight that’s left to hang in their marriage. Lombardo’s world lingers in the strange uncertainty of living with someone you thought you knew. “We never talked,” Lombardo says about his relationship with his ex-wife. Their former marriage is the inspiration for many of the novel’s scenes. “There were weeks on end after our son was born that my wife was suffering from something that she couldn’t talk about.” It was frustrating, he tells me, not being able to help. “So, I started to imagine a narrative around it.”

Lombardo depicts the fallout between Audrey and Alan with a curiously light touch, exploring the distressing shapes resentment can take in a marriage. So much of the novel is about trying to be seen and failing, not finding the voice to make yourself heard. Lombardo excels in bittersweet reflection.

“That’s what I feel like we do as humans,” Lombardo says. “If we’re lying with every breath and we’re not able to tell the truth for whatever reason because we don’t have the capacity to do it or we don’t know it or we bought the lie about it. If my wife isn’t talking to me I have to figure it out. If she’s yelling at me because I left the door open again, what’s behind that? Or is it some other thing? And you have to imagine what it is. So that’s what these characters are doing too and I just gave them the ability to talk.”

As a teenager, Lombardo wrote poetry. Later, in his late twenties, he started reading at the Green Mill, a jazz club in Chicago. “It was highly narrative and unschooled for the way poetry goes,” he says about his work at the time. “But when you did something right on stage, the place just kind of shut down. You could hear the cigarette ash drop and it was amazing and I just wanted that to happen every minute of my life.” Later, he met Chicago writer Stuart Dybek at a literary festival. They shared many of the same memories of Bridgeport, the Chicago neighborhood where Lombardo grew up. “He said, ‘Where did you live?’ And I told him I lived in an apartment above Dressel’s Bakery,” Lombardo recalls. Dybek knew it well. “I just felt that it gave me a kind of permission to write and because my work was so highly narrative it lent itself to short stories.”

Lombardo’s poetry spoke to a memorable yet “squandered” boyhood in Bridgeport. “I was just figuring out the language to put to my life,” he says about writing and what led to his embrace of fiction. A lot of this personalization is evident in Morning Will Come, which is as much an homage to the day-to-day in Chicago as it is a love story. There’s a moment of self-discovery on the bus, twilight walks for ice cream, and the lyrical interplay between a family and their city. Many of the novel’s specific incidents—a man’s fall from a high-rise, a stolen backpack—were told to Lombardo by a friend. “I realized that I wasn’t tethered by real occasions in my life,” Lombardo says about the process of writing Morning Will Come. “I could stray from the facts, and then I started figuring out something about truth and fiction, like these are just real truths, and they wouldn’t even be things that happened to me, and I would be weeping as I was writing them because of this truth that I had gotten at somehow.”

So much of the novel is about recognition and the biting realization that a lot of it, especially for women, hinges on appearance. Lombardo tells me he challenged himself to write physicality in a way that never describes the body. I ask him about writing female characters. “It’s hard, right?” I say. “Especially when you’re writing about relationships, to avoid describing something physical.” Lombardo agrees.

“Part of me feels like I nailed it, that I got at something that’s sort of universal in everyone and then someone else will read it and say that girls don’t think that way. And I don’t know if I buy that. I just feel like if you can’t get into someone’s head that’s not you, you have no business writing fiction. So, I don’t know if I ever feel like I have to apologize for it. I do feel like I can take credit for it if it works, but I’m also okay with coming up short.”

We go back to talking about the discovery process, the strange things that come up when a writer is in the middle of it. “I think that’s why I started the magazine, to give people [the opportunity]. There’s nothing like it once you’re able to sit down and write,” he says about getting a thought on the page. “You’ve helped someone name something and I just feel like one of the greatest joys of my life is just nailing something that you feel is perfectly languaged somehow. If someone else feels it and you move them in some way, that to me is like, wow. But I’m not thinking about that when I’m sitting down. I’m my first reader right? I want to move myself.”

Lombardo has another call coming in that he needs to take. I thank him for writing the book. “It’s beautiful,” I tell him, and we hang up.

Collin Mitchell is a student in the UC Riverside Low Residency MFA program and the author of The Faithful, a historical biography of the opera composer Giuseppe Verdi. He lives in Palm Desert with his wife and son.

Book Review: Strung Out: One Last Hit and Other Lies That Nearly Killed Me


Like so many of the recent stories about opiate addiction in the United States, Erin Khar’s journey toward heroin started with a pill. “I pulled The World According to Garp out from underneath my pillow and read,” she writes, remembering the first time she raided her mother’s medicine cabinet. She was eight. “After a little while, the heat in my body was replaced by the lightness of little bubbles . . . . It was the exit I desperately wanted.”

Khar’s experience as an advice columnist for Ravishly is well-suited to turn Strung Out: One Last Hit and Other Lies That Nearly Killed Me from what might otherwise be a distressing year-by-year account of addiction into a story that develops context and empathy toward mental illness and drug abuse. Khar is forthright in her opinion about our inability to understand addiction: “The stigma associated with opioids, with heroin, with “being a junkie,” prevents people from reaching out. And that stigma is killing us. Americans are stuck in a spiral of shame, and that shame drives the vicious cycle of relapse that many drug users get caught in.” In a culture that tends to conflate pity and prejudice toward adversity, this could be a helpful guide for the uninitiated in understanding the causes of drug and alcohol dependence.

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Book Review: Nothing to See Here

By Collin Mitchell

Breaking the mold is a difficult thing to do and no one captures the difficulty of this hardship better than Lillian Breaker, the consciously wayward protagonist in Kevin Wilson’s new novel, Nothing to See Here.

As a teenager, Lillian is ambitious enough to get into the exclusive Iron Mountain, “a fancy girl’s school hidden on a mountain in the middle of nowhere,” but at twenty-eight she’s living in her mom’s attic, working two grocery store jobs, and smoking a lot of weed. So, what’s her problem? Her best (and rich and beautiful and scheming) friend, Madison Billings. If this novel isn’t about fate and class, family, the haves and the have-nots, then it’s about friendship and its exploitive little schemes.

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Book Review: Your House Will Pay

By Collin Mitchell

Ripples from the past resurface in Steph Cha’s new novel, Your House Will Pay.

At the time of the writing of this review, veteran journalist K. Connie Kang had recently died after writing about the Korean community for the the Los Angeles Times. Kang gave voice to the Koreatown community affected by the riots in the wake of the Rodney King verdict. Journalists like Kang are burdened with adhering to the idea of truth, while the creative writer can entreat memory and personal experience in finding a truth that fits within the framework of their own grief. It’s these personal stories, the prejudiced tales told within families, that Steph Cha explores in her new novel, Your House Will Pay. Through the frame of early ‘90s race-tinged LA and our current grapple with race politics and police brutality, Cha ably depicts greater Los Angeles as it is: a melded body of bedroom communities, sun-bleached strip malls, and liquor stores threaded together by a dozen distinct cultures and a violent history. It’s in this context that the book examines the idea of transgressing the familial stories we think define us and finding a part of ourselves that can separate from the past. As one character observes: “This is when shit gets permanent. The choices you make are gonna stick, they’re going to follow you.”

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