Thomas Page McBee asks “What makes a man?” in the newest memoir published by City Lights, Man Alive: A True Story of Violence, Forgiveness and Becoming a Man. Thomas’s immediate answer, in the first paragraph of the first page, is to clarify the question and its context: “Before I was held at gunpoint on a cold April day, I couldn’t have told you.”
But the question goes back even further to 1985 when, growing up in Pittsburgh Thomas, born female, was abused by his father. In Man Alive’s exploration of manhood, these traumas, committed by two deeply damaged men, are pivotal then peripheral as Thomas learns to transcend their examples and become the man he wants to be.
This is an eloquent, important, beautiful book, about which Roxanne Gray wrote: “Man Alive is a sweet, tender hurt of a memoir. Thomas Page McBee deftly recounts what has shaped him into the man he has become and how—from childhood trauma to a mugging in Oakland where he learned of his body’s ability to save itself. This is a memoir about forgiveness and self-discovery, but mostly it’s about love, so much love. McBee takes us in his capable hands and shows us what it takes to become a man who is gloriously, gloriously alive.” Read on for an excerpt of the first chapter.
“Works of art encourage us to respond in kind,” wrote Geoff Dyer; and so, reading this book about love and living, I felt loved and alive. And like love and life, this book is hard to reduce to any single moment, but the opening chapter gives some idea of Thomas’s writing—its vibrancy and inclusiveness.
What makes a man?
It’s not that I haven’t studied them: their sinew, their slang, their beautiful bristle; but before I was held at gunpoint on a cold April day, I couldn’t have told you.
A real man, a family man, the Marlboro man, man up.
The man in the mirror.
I loved that Michael Jackson song, growing up. Used to forget girl-hips, used to sing it to my best imagination of myself.
What makes a man? The need to know led me to my father’s hometown in hot-damp South Carolina. The story starts there because that’s where I went when I could no longer afford to leave the question alone, to let it rear up every few years, when I’d had too much to drink and it was just me and my reflection and my hungry ghosts. And so I steered my rental through the swampy South with my cap pulled low. I had a teen-boy swagger, scars like smiles across my chest, and a body I was just beginning to love.
But the story also begins the night I almost died, back in April of 2010. And in 1985, when my father became a monster, and in 1990 when my mom found out he was one.
“Men,” she’d said then. And I’d learned to say it the same way, a lemon in my mouth.
In South Carolina I could smell it through my open window: alligators and secrets; the embers of Sherman’s march, the Klu Klux Klan, my father’s farm, burning. It smelled like my animal fear and the spicy deodorant I used to cover it.
Men, I thought with that old bitterness, but I already knew my body was shifting. In fact that’s why I was there.
A good man is hard to find.
The windshield blurred; the road was inky, the rain biblical. The cheap motel off the highway seemed like not such a hot idea after I passed my fifth gun-racked pick-up, but there wasn’t any turning back.
Once a body is in motion, it stays in motion. My mom’s a physicist; she told me that.
The truth is, this is a ghost story. No, this is an adventure story.
This is an adventure story about how I quit being a ghost.
Man Alive: A True Story of Violence, Forgiveness and Becoming a Man is available today at your local bookseller. You can also order it from City Lights for a 30% discount. The author will be reading at City Lights on October 9th, and it is not to be missed.