The Men Can’t Be Saved: A Novel

  • Review
By – November 28, 2023

In his debut nov­el, Ben Purk­ert attempts to under­stand men — with vary­ing degrees of suc­cess. Try­ing to reveal why men are hurt­ing, and why they hurt oth­ers, is coura­geous at a time when Amer­i­can cul­ture is hun­gry to hear from any­one else. And, as Purk­ert demon­strates, it is nec­es­sary work. Young men today are grave­ly under­served and in des­per­ate need of mod­els for new ways to be and lead in the world. 

How­ev­er, no one in Purkert’s nov­el will serve as such a mod­el. Read­ers won’t find one in Seth, a neu­rot­ic and Jew-ish Hold­en Caulfield – type who is assured of his own bril­liance, con­vinced that every­one else is a pho­ny” and unwill­ing to do the work.” Nor will they find one in Moon, Seth’s tough and ulti­mate­ly vio­lent man­ag­er at an ad agency. They will be equal­ly dis­ap­point­ed with Nadav, a tox­ic rab­bi who turns out, sad­ly, to be human after all. Indeed, as read­ers make their way through this book, they might strug­gle to iden­ti­fy why they’re so com­pelled to con­tin­ue. The char­ac­ters are deeply unlike­able, and there is no plot — or at least not real­ly — only men con­tin­u­ing to hurt and aban­don a parade of bro­ken and resigned women until there is no one left to hurt but them­selves. In a nod to the unique­ly destruc­tive kinds of men who are enabled by lit­er­ary cir­cles, Purk­ert includes mul­ti­ple ref­er­ences to Jacques Derrida’s Archive Fever.

By the end of the nov­el, it’s unclear whether Purk­ert wants us to be angry or empa­thet­ic. (Per­haps both?) He rock­ets us along with a strong feel­ing of schaden­freude, ask­ing us to watch tox­ic men descend to new depths as they grap­ple with their spir­i­tu­al­i­ty, sex­u­al­i­ty, and pur­pose in expect­ed­ly shal­low ways (pills, penis poet­ry, pil­grim­ages to Israel). This book is incred­i­bly plea­sur­able to read. In a cul­ture of omnipresent tox­ic mas­culin­i­ty, per­haps there is some­thing cathar­tic about it. Yet Purkert’s depic­tion of these men is unset­tling, prompt­ing some impor­tant ques­tions: What do we do with the tox­ic men in our own lives? How do we help them help themselves? 

In this vein, it’s strik­ing how Purk­ert devi­ates from the typ­i­cal Amer­i­can bil­dungsro­man in his ambiva­lent yet point­ed explo­ration of Seth’s Judaism. Seth is an assim­i­lat­ed con­ser­v­a­tive Jew from sub­ur­ban Amer­i­ca, whose jaunts through Birthright and the world of Chabad seem to do noth­ing to alle­vi­ate his anx­i­eties, addic­tions, and crip­pling loss of self. If there is any pal­lia­tive for the frag­ile men in this sto­ry, it is cer­tain­ly not their faith or their con­nec­tion to reli­gious com­mu­ni­ty. Behind Purkert’s humor and picaresque style is an inci­sive indict­ment of the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ties and estab­lish­ments that most Amer­i­can Jews encounter on a reg­u­lar basis. 

The men, in oth­er words, are not alright. Whether or not this is a fix­able prob­lem is pre­cise­ly the ques­tion Purk­ert rais­es — and it’s up to us to find answers.

Joshua Krucht­en is an edu­ca­tor and cur­rent doc­tor­al can­di­date at NYU spe­cial­iz­ing in the lit­er­a­ture and his­to­ry of ear­ly mod­ern Europe.

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