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.