Man of the Year

  • Review
May 16, 2017

Lou Cove’s mem­oir con­tains ele­ments found in dozens, per­haps hun­dreds of books about the dif­fi­cul­ties of an awk­ward ado­les­cence: trou­bles at school, argu­ments with par­ents, exper­i­men­ta­tion with drugs, and of course, sex­u­al explo­ration. What sets Man of the Year apart is the can­ni­ly ren­dered sense of a spe­cif­ic place (Salem, Mass­a­chu­setts, on what his moth­er calls the most beau­ti­ful street in Amer­i­ca”) and time — the late 1970s, that moment dur­ing the Carter admin­is­tra­tion when the coun­ter­cul­ture of the six­ties still hadn’t entire­ly van­ished and the yup­pie- and prep­py-dri­ven eight­ies hadn’t yet begun.

Lou’s fam­i­ly — his par­ents, two younger sib­lings, an ill-behaved dog, and a stinky rab­bit— is quirky in its own way, but in prac­tice, there’s a much larg­er would-be fam­i­ly sur­round­ing them almost con­stant­ly: neigh­bors (a rough teenage girl, a very prop­er old­er woman), near­by rel­a­tives (aunts, uncles, cousins, grand­par­ents), a gay ten­ant (Lou’s father’s long­time friend), and most notably, a twen­ty-some­thing cou­ple (his father’s erst­while pro­tégé and his wife) named Howie and Car­ly, who move into the Coves’ house for a year. Howie — a for­mer hip­pie, some­time nud­ist, free-love advo­cate, and unem­ployed charmer — becomes the most impor­tant man in young Lou’s life, some­where between an old­er broth­er and a young uncle. Howie and Lou’s father share many val­ues — both have an ongo­ing but incon­sis­tent inter­est in their Judaism, for exam­ple — but the dif­fer­ence in their gen­er­a­tions means Howie is a very dif­fer­ent kind of role mod­el when it comes to teach­ing teenage Lou about sex, drugs, and rela­tion­ships. While Howie pos­es for Play­girl, enlist­ing Lou to help him cam­paign to become the magazine’s Man of the Year, and lat­er starts mak­ing porn, Lou’s father is try­ing to sell his son a very dif­fer­ent approach to life (more tra­di­tion­al, but still quite per­mis­sive in a 70s kind of way).

Lou learns lessons from every­one around him, includ­ing lessons about Judaism. His father seems not to care whether Lou becomes bar mitz­vah, and puts up a Christ­mas tree every Hanukkah because it makes the house smell good.” Howie sprin­kles Yid­dishisms into his speech, but the depth of his Jew­ish iden­ti­ty is only high­light­ed when Lou finds out that he’d con­sid­ered enter­ing rab­bini­cal school — before decid­ing to make dirty movies instead.

Man of the Year isn’t rev­o­lu­tion­ary in its form: It’s a sto­ry about a fam­i­ly — but the type of fam­i­ly rep­re­sent­ed here is so rich, so var­ied, and recalled with such warmth that the book stands apart from its genre. Swirling with ideas about what it means to be an adult, this sto­ry of one Jew­ish boy’s awk­ward and some­times painful ado­les­cence builds to a crescen­do where it’s unclear Lou will ever have his bar mitz­vah, but it’s clear that he’s fig­ur­ing out how to become a man.

Discussion Questions