In his debut novel, Ben Purkert attempts to understand men — with varying degrees of success. Trying to reveal why men are hurting, and why they hurt others, is courageous at a time when American culture is hungry to hear from anyone else. And, as Purkert demonstrates, it is necessary work. Young men today are gravely underserved and in desperate need of models for new ways to be and lead in the world.
However, no one in Purkert’s novel will serve as such a model. Readers won’t find one in Seth, a neurotic and Jew-ish Holden Caulfield – type who is assured of his own brilliance, convinced that everyone else is a “phony” and unwilling to “do the work.” Nor will they find one in Moon, Seth’s tough and ultimately violent manager at an ad agency. They will be equally disappointed with Nadav, a toxic rabbi who turns out, sadly, to be human after all. Indeed, as readers make their way through this book, they might struggle to identify why they’re so compelled to continue. The characters are deeply unlikeable, and there is no plot — or at least not really — only men continuing to hurt and abandon a parade of broken and resigned women until there is no one left to hurt but themselves. In a nod to the uniquely destructive kinds of men who are enabled by literary circles, Purkert includes multiple references to Jacques Derrida’s Archive Fever.
By the end of the novel, it’s unclear whether Purkert wants us to be angry or empathetic. (Perhaps both?) He rockets us along with a strong feeling of schadenfreude, asking us to watch toxic men descend to new depths as they grapple with their spirituality, sexuality, and purpose in expectedly shallow ways (pills, penis poetry, pilgrimages to Israel). This book is incredibly pleasurable to read. In a culture of omnipresent toxic masculinity, perhaps there is something cathartic about it. Yet Purkert’s depiction of these men is unsettling, prompting some important questions: What do we do with the toxic men in our own lives? How do we help them help themselves?
In this vein, it’s striking how Purkert deviates from the typical American bildungsroman in his ambivalent yet pointed exploration of Seth’s Judaism. Seth is an assimilated conservative Jew from suburban America, whose jaunts through Birthright and the world of Chabad seem to do nothing to alleviate his anxieties, addictions, and crippling loss of self. If there is any palliative for the fragile men in this story, it is certainly not their faith or their connection to religious community. Behind Purkert’s humor and picaresque style is an incisive indictment of the Jewish communities and establishments that most American Jews encounter on a regular basis.
The men, in other words, are not alright. Whether or not this is a fixable problem is precisely the question Purkert raises — and it’s up to us to find answers.
Joshua Kruchten is an educator and current doctoral candidate at NYU specializing in the literature and history of early modern Europe.