I only recently came across Thomas Page McBee’s writing, via Ann Friedman’s Instagram story. She was reading Amateur: A True Story About What Makes a Man, which is McBee’s second book, out from Scribner on August 14 in the U.S. (it’s already out in the UK).
I consider this a great spark of luck, since I almost never view the Instagram stories of anyone but my close friends and family. I can’t remember what exactly she said about it, but it was sufficiently glowing for me to look it up on Goodreads. It sounded so compelling that I requested an ARC from Scribner (one of my favorite publishers btw, with consistently great books), which they graciously sent.
I have to admit, I tend to be a bit of a misandrist. I almost never read books written by men. I often ignore masculine narratives because I automatically associate them with The Patriarchy, that great instrument of all oppressive systems and structures that govern society.
But what is masculinity, exactly? What is it about men that makes them so instrumental in The Patriarchy? What are the nuances of being socialized as male in a world that is hell-bent on upholding binaries, gender and otherwise? How much control do they have over their place in the world, and how do the systems that benefit them also make them suffer? And what if you’re a man who was assigned female at birth – what is masculinity to someone who wasn’t socialized “male” since infanthood?
I don’t ask myself these questions very often. I’m a lesbian, after all. I have a privilege that comes with being cis and a woman who loves womxn; I’m one who loves some particular men I know, but also feels like I could do without men in general. But more and more, I question why that is. What is a woman, what is a man, and what are they when not defined in opposition to each other?
Thomas Page McBee poses this question throughout Amateur. He’s a trans man who began his medical transition in his early 30s. He describes his “Before” body/self as always having been masculine, butch, androgynous. After his medical gender-affirmation transition, he also “passed” as cisgender. “Passing” is another concept that McBee challenges in its usefulness and harm.
The book begins with a moment in which McBee is confronted by another man on the street who accuses him of taking a picture of his car. In reality, McBee was taking a picture of a restaurant he wanted to take his girlfriend to, and his response to the aggressiveness of the other man is to get angry. To want to hit him. He describes a “tipping toward violence” that felt like the price of being a man. That moment spurred him to ask himself: Why do men fight?
As a writer, McBee wanted to do a deep dive into this question about what it means to be a man and why violence (in multiple forms) is often part of it. Thus begins his journey into the world of boxing, where he signs up for a charity match to be fought at Madison Square Garden just months after he starts training.
This is a story about a guy who jumped in over his head into a sport and followed that overwhelming journey to greater self-understanding. It’s about someone who was assigned female at birth, transitioned to a “passing” man, got into boxing and learned some unexpected things. It’s a story about intimacy between men. It’s an analysis of sociological factors that shape humans into things they’re maybe never meant to be, things that steal tenderness and vulnerability. It’s a story about crisis and finding a place in the world. And it’s a love story.
This is also a memoir, which touches on the sexual abuse McBee’s stepfather inflicted on him as a child; McBee’s close relationship with his late mother, who always told him he had a “golden core” (something the reader can feel shining brightly throughout the book); his relationship with his siblings and his girlfriend; and deep unexpected friendships forged through boxing, a sport that is violent but tender at the same time. Like so many sports/physical challenges, it also inspires one to ask what kind of person they are, and what they’re fighting for.
Through it all, McBee reflects on how transitioning changed his own behavior as well as the behavior of the people around him (suddenly entire rooms of people would listen when he talked, for example). He consistently asks himself what kind of man he wants to be, and what kind of person. Ultimately, his personal narrative dovetails with the sociological framework: The paradoxes of gender and life, all the ways one chooses to live every day, and dreaming oneself into being.
I was really blown away by this book. I can see why Ann Friedman loved it so much. The writing is poetic in its vulnerability and beauty, but it’s incredibly readable. It proved really useful in helping me question some of my own mindsets and assumptions, while also being a story that made me cry and laugh. I can’t recommend it highly enough. I thank Thomas Page McBee for sharing this work with the world, and can’t wait for what comes next from him. In the meantime, I’ll be reading his first book, Man Alive, and thinking about Amateur for a long time to come.