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