Levitin’s ‘Dis­pos­able Man’ seeks his proper place in a fem­i­nist world

The Mercury News - - Local News - By An­gela Hill

We met at The Pub in Al­bany where the vibe is de­cid­edly mas­cu­line — it’s in­side an old house where you can sit by a fire, buy pipe tobacco and smoke it, have a pint, play a sav­age game of Scrab­ble and read, oh, say, Hem­ing­way.

It’s an anom­aly in a world of pre­cious bou­tiques and Pi­lates stu­dios, and it’s a fa­vorite haunt of El Cer­rito au­thor Michael Levitin. It’s also a set­ting that evokes well-worn wa­ter­ing holes in the long­time jour­nal­ist’s first novel, “Dis­pos­able Man,” (Spuyten Duyvil, $16, 181 pages).

Now don’t think the re­fresh­ingly lean num­ber of pages makes this a light­weight. The book is in­deed com­pact and fit, not un­like Levitin him­self.

But — also like Levitin — it’s ro­bust with nu­ance and wit. It’s beau­ti­fully writ­ten with vi­brant de­scrip­tions of peo­ple and places and lots and lots of his­tory — both global and per­sonal.

As the ti­tle hints, the novel deals with male iden­tity in the 21st cen­tury, but it also em­braces timely themes of Jewish her­itage, women’s move­ments, ghosts of the past, wis­dom of our el­ders and more. (There’s even a bit about a Siberian kid­nap­ping and Mon­ica Lewin­sky.)

And it all be­gins with a wild tale one would surely con­sider the stuff of fic­tion, but it’s part of Levitin’s real-life fam­ily his­tory. It in­volves his great aunt Josephine, a young Lithua­nian Jew wrenched from her home in Kovno and shipped off to a frigid Soviet la­bor camp, her flimsy boots quickly thin­ning to shreds.

In a des­per­ate and seem­ingly ab­surd move, she mails a hand-fash­ioned post­card to Al­bert Ein- stein — the Al­bert Ein­stein

— with an ad­dress only as chap­ters of past and present, “U.S.A.,” ask­ing him to the fa­mous mis­sive have his Ger­man as­sis­tant — the fic­tional ver­sion — con­tact Josephine’s Amer­i­can makes its way into the rel­a­tives so they’ll hands of Levitin’s main send her new boots. char­ac­ter, Max Krumm,

And — spoiler — it an Amer­i­can ex-pat in his worked! Months later, 30s, liv­ing in a mod­ern­day, while toil­ing in the gu­lag, gen­tri­fied, Bay-Areaized she re­ceives a wel­comed Ber­lin. pack­age that truly saves Max has just been her life. dumped. Not just dumped,

“Yes, that part was all but dis­missed. Dis­posed of very real,” Levitin says, by his Ger­man wife, who tak­ing a short drag on has traded him in for an­other a hand-rolled smoke be­tween guy as ca­su­ally as sips of smol­der­ing she’d change her shoes. cof­fee — too early in the Max de­clares him­self a day for a pint. “The fact cuck­old, con­vinced it’s a that (the post­card) ac­tu­ally ge­netic dis­or­der that’s af­fected made it to Ein­stein, and he gen­er­a­tions of men acted on it, and it reached in his fam­ily. her sis­ter and brother-in­law But this di­min­ished — it really was mi- sense of man­hood is more rac­u­lous. Some­thing that than just per­sonal peril. shouldn’t have hap­pened.” It’s sym­bolic of what Max

Through al­ter­nat­ing — and Levitin — see as an

en­tire gen­er­a­tion of dis­pos­able men.

As women take the stage in pol­i­tics, the work­place, academia and even at home, want­ing it all and go­ing for it with gusto — the gusto men used to have — Max doesn’t know where men fit any­more. So-called men spend their days in chil­dren’s cloth­ing (short pants and printed T-shirts) nosed into their phones. They’re well-ed­u­cated with a world of pos­si­bil­i­ties, yet they bum­ble through life with lit­tle or no am­bi­tion.

“Our grand­par­ents fled death, fought in wars,” Levitin says. “With my fam­ily, there were so many larger con­cerns to deal with, like sheer sur­vival. We have it so com­fort­ably now, we don’t have any­one breath­ing down our necks say­ing we have to do a damn thing. So a lot of us don’t.”

In­deed, in Max’s words, the dis­pos­able man “has dropped his ar­mor like a suit on the floor and re­placed it with ter­rycloth.”

“I am a dis­pos­able man liv­ing in a dis­pos­able age in which my ac­tions, my de­ci­sions and my free­dom it­self are lit­tle more than sym­bol,” Max muses. “What is there, after all, that a dis­pos­able man must choose from: What, more im­por­tantly, does he choose for?”

Max hangs with his pals in the gritty pubs, a last refuge for bro time, pon­der­ing life and gen­er­ally float­ing along un­til Aunt Josephine’s post­card spurs an ad­ven­ture through Poland and into Lithua­nia, where Max delves into archives, un­cov­ers fam­ily se­crets, re­dis­cov­ers his man­hood and finds his fu­ture through his fam­ily’s tragic past.

There’s in­deed strong stuff about the mod­ern male-fe­male dy­namic, yet Levitin doesn’t want this to come across as an an­tifem­i­nist man­i­festo. “I’m a man writ­ing this for men, about men, but in re­al­ity, I’m very fem­i­nist,” he said, adding that Max’s feel­ings of dis­pos­abil­ity are largely fed by envy of what women are ac­com­plish­ing these days.

It may be that men are in a kind of tran­si­tional pe­riod, an evo­lu­tion.

“We have to ac­knowl­edge fem­i­nism as the new norm, but we can still be ‘manly,’ in the sense of re­turn­ing to our more ba­sic el­e­ments, men’s ca­pac­i­ties as cre­ators of things, of ideas,” he says.

“I’d like to see men ba­si­cally have more balls, get­ting out there and de­mand­ing so­cial jus­tice, be­ing real lead­ers in this coun­try. It’s women who are do­ing that now, which is great. But how do men break out of their strait­jacket that we pretty much put our­selves in by be­ing such (ex­ple­tive) in the first place?”

Levitin is not only a fem­i­nist but a jour­nal­ist and so­cial-jus­tice ac­tivist. He grew up in North­ern Cal­i­for­nia, at­tended UC Santa Cruz and the Columbia Grad­u­ate School of Jour­nal­ism.

In the mid-2000s, he lived in Europe, mostly in Ber­lin, hence his spot-on de­scrip­tions of the cul­ture. His writ­ing has ap­peared in The Guardian, the Los An­ge­les Times, Newsweek and more.

He was the found­ing ed­i­tor of the Prague Lit­er­ary Re­view, and he was heav­ily in­volved in the Oc­cupy move­ment, co-found­ing the “Oc­cupy Wall Street Jour­nal” and serv­ing as a li­ai­son with main­stream me­dia. In fact, his next book will be a non­fic­tion anal­y­sis of Oc­cupy and its legacy, an ex­panded ver­sion of a piece he wrote for The At­lantic in 2015.

Now in his early 40s, Levitin is a fam­ily man with a 3-year-old daugh­ter. So where does he stand on the dis­pos­able-man spec­trum?

“I started writ­ing (“Dis­pos­able Man”) in my late 20s, early 30s, and I was pretty dis­pos­able then,” he says. “I’m in a dif­fer­ent place now. I’ve kind of ac­cepted that this is what men are right now. Peo­ple say, now that you have a fam­ily, now you have pur­pose. You’re def­i­nitely not dis­pos­able to your kid, and that’s true.

“But I like to try to keep a bit of the Hem­ing­way ethos alive,” he says, smash­ing out his cig­a­rette and ex­hal­ing a last wisp of smoke. “I don’t want to give in to be­ing ‘malelite.’ ”


El Cer­rito au­thor Michael Levitin dips into his fam­ily his­tory and some of his own past strug­gles to pro­duce his first novel, “Dis­pos­able Man.”

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