Best Books of 2018 #1
If you told me at the beginning of 2018 that my book of the year would be the memoir of a transgender man who took up boxing, I would have offered you generous odds against it. But here is Thomas Page McBee’s tough, tender, wise and moving Amateur, a book that will wholly rewire the way you think about men and masculinity.
McBee had an upbringing that would have destroyed most of us. A sense of being trapped in the wrong body from the get-go was one part of it. Being sexually abused by his stepfather for years was another. It is a tribute to the writer’s bravery and moral compass that even though he would be wholly justified in claiming victimhood, he doesn’t do so for a moment. Instead, he traces how the months-long preparation for a charity boxing match at Madison Square Garden (McBee first pitched it as an article to his editors at Quartz), from being a rank amateur to a competent fighter, obliged him to think about what kind of man he wanted to be.
For most people, gender starts so early and remains so omnipresent that the question of what it is to be a woman or man is almost tautologous: my gender is what I am. But masculinity is not the water that McBee has swum in. He has undergone a profound translation in selfhood.
By notating the changes he feels in himself – along with shifting perceptions of the world towards him as his voice deepens, his chest muscles up, his beard darkens – McBee narrates a crisis. He has always wanted to be a man; he has always wanted to be admitted to the masculine tribe. Yet, he learns, the world is so willing to give attention, respect and unearned credit to men that he feels unable to settle comfortably within his new dispensation. He has suffered for too long the automatic downgrades due to women to accept the patriarchy’s blind self-satisfactions.
This is not a feminist critique, however. As McBee grows accustomed to the “wounded ballet” of boxing he also discovers sympathy for men. They, too, are trapped inside systems of power that tend to promulgate violence, that can be toxic. The bloody intimacy of the sport is a potent metaphor here. McBee is willing to suffer bodily for his insights. And their having been so hard-won, the reader cannot help but take them as evidence of wisdom. His message? None of us need be the way we are.
My other book of the year was one I commissioned at Picador via Facebook Messenger from a man I’d never met – No Friend But the Mountains: Writing from Manus Prison by Kurdish-Iranian journalist Behrouz Boochani, beautifully translated by Omid Tofighian. As Richard Flanagan notes in his foreword, the first triumph of the book is that it exists at all. Our responsibility in turn, as readers and citizens, is to absorb this epic of displacement and incarceration – then loud-hail Behrouz’s testimony from every rooftop.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 22, 2018 as "Best Books of 2018 #1 ". Subscribe here.