My grandmother used to tell me to enjoy my youth, because the fun stopped with the coming of adulthood. “Men to Boys: The Making of Modern Immaturity,” by Gary Cross, defines the phenomenon of “basement boys” or “boy-men”—the guys who move back in with mom and dad to play video games and watch violent adventure movies. Cross’s thesis is that men’s traditional roles were transformed because there were no longer farms or home workshops that enabled the father to participate in child-rearing; mass industrialization made men into mere breadwinners and turned over child-rearing to the mothers. Dads were to be pals and engage their sons through hobbies or Boy Scouts, this way teaching manly values. But boys, having already won the Oedipal struggle by default, rejected traditional masculinity. This fostered first the aimless howling rebellions and boyish Hefnerian self-indulgence of the 1950s, followed by 1960s radicalism. Cross cites a number of sources from the time that pinpointed the root of this activity in individual narcissism. He actually mentions the Weather Underground; an acquaintance of mine who, believe it or not, dated Bill Ayers in college here in Ann Arbor, says he had a smoldering hatred for his parents—his father was a busy executive at Con Edison in New York—and this contributed to his radicalism. Anyway, all the “New Man” stuff of the 1960s degenerated into consumerism. Meanwhile, cultural models such as “Gunsmoke” and “Father Knows Best,” as well as rugged John Wayne westerns and genteel Spencer Tracy comedies, became obsolete. Cynicism prevailed, and we’re left with gross-out humor, fools like Homer Simpson, and the comic-book violence of “Rambo” and “The Terminator.” Not to mention “Doom” and the whole culture of violent video games. Magazines like Maxim assert that it’s cool to remain an adolescent.
“Men to Boys” is quite absorbing. (But for a book from Columbia University Press, there sure are a lot of typos.) Cross’s explorations and analyses of popular culture are awfully persuasive. Once or twice I thought he would be unable to make his argument hold together, but he manages to do it. In answering a lot of questions, this book is particularly timely, as the 22-year-old son of some friends has just moved back home, into the basement, after flunking out of college. I told my wife that the kid will live with his mother till she dies. Or he dies. (The father isn’t going to make it that long.) And in my own family, there’s always the example of my Uncle Mike, who was lifted along on that first wave of 1950s teen culture and has devoted himself to preserving his youth by salvaging 1930s cars and generally espousing hot rod culture; he never married, nor even dated seriously, and lived at home with my grandmother until she died. He remains in that same house. My grandma was right, and Uncle Mike, now in his late-60s, continues to heed her advice by not growing up. “Men to Boys” makes me glad I never lost myself in hobbies such as model railroading or muscle cars. It affirms the instinct that kept me away from the action-adventure movies and the video game consoles of the 1980s. And I can now say I was right to have turned off “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” after fifteen minutes and sent the disk back to Netflix.