Review: Amateur: A True Story About What Makes a Man

Thomas Page McBee launched a career in writing about masculinity with a regular column for The Rumpus, "Self-Made Man." It soon gave way to a smart, lyrical memoir, Man Alive. For those projects, he candidly documented his transition while wrestling with the implications of embracing a gender responsible for so much hurt in the world. Amateur follows McBee further into his dogged investigation into what in fact makes a man.
He steps into the ring as an amateur boxer after a brush with male aggression. His sights set on a charity fight several months away, he's driven by a desire to hone his skills in protecting himself, but more so by a burning question about why violence is so entwined with masculinity. Sociology professor Michael Kimmel suggests to him, "Men tend to fight when they feel humiliated.... You don't fight when you feel really powerful."
Furthermore, McBee observes, "I assumed that fighting for my right as a trans man to be seen as 'real' would be a big part of this story," and yet the social idea of what "real men" are, and how they behave, is more insidious than that. "I'd never heard a woman who wasn't trans insulted over her lack of 'realness,' " he writes, the way men have their gender performance regularly policed with admonishments to "man up." Vulnerability is discouraged, and turned into a reason to fight. And while that may explain the common male posture toward violence, it most certainly doesn't excuse it.
McBee ponders these sociological implications with refreshing care and empathy, untangling a positive depiction of masculinity from the toxic strains paraded through contemporary discourse. His writing is marvelous, pinning ideas that could so easily be abstract to the visceral, physical poetry of boxing. The sport is ruthless--to mind as well as body. Learning its art is one challenge; learning to check ego is another, as McBee learns to submit to uncomfortable and occasionally counterintuitive instruction from his trainer, sometimes after much trial and error.
It's in this process, though, that he discovers why men who have spent time in the ring may not be so quick to pick fights outside of it. As his big charity match at Madison Square Garden creeps closer, McBee begins to see himself and his trajectory so much clearer: "I did not want to become a real man.... I was fighting for something better."
Thomas Page McBee displays tenacity on the page and in the gym, sizing up formidable concepts and engaging them with savvy and sensitivity. Amateur is more than a boxing story, just as it's more than a trans narrative. It's a highly recommended case study in manhood. --Dave Wheeler, associate editor, Shelf Awareness
Shelf Talker: While training for a charity boxing match at Madison Square Garden, Thomas Page McBee grapples with the complex relationship between masculinity and violence.
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