The below are little collections of information I picked up from, respectively, Esquire and GQ.

The world’s finest ready-made suits are found in America. The world’s most intriguing men’s store is in Italy. The world’s best harmonicas come from Germany.


Fifteen percent of all furs in the United States are sold to males. Some men tint their chest hair to match the hair on their head. The figures on a paisley necktie do not signify the male seed.

I consider this dustball knowledge, the kind that will go straight into my mental attic, where it will be neither used nor discarded for the rest of my life. I don’t need it, I don’t want it, but I’ll never be able to get rid of it. It would be easier for me to empty my mind of my own phone number than of Esquire‘s description of a German-designed faucet: “an aquatic Varga.” Such is the nature of these magazines—upscale publications for style-obsessed men—that they make indelible what in any other context would be utterly forgettable. This is not a compliment.

Then why do I read them? I read them because I can’t quite believe they exist. I read them because I don’t understand them. I am sure that there are across this country countless men who bought last November’s GQ precisely because the cover promised a feature called “A Real Guy’s Guide to Hair Coloring.” These men opened the issue, found the article, and read the first sentence: “Stockbrokers, doctors, and lawyers are starting to consider their hair as much a power statement as their suit and tie.” And then a profound thing happened. The men didn’t laugh. What I keep trying to figure out is: why not? (I have the feeling that a move to New York would clarify everything; but some prices are too high, even for enlightenment.)

GQ is published as a lifestyle magazine for “The Modern Man.” Actually it is, as the title of the hair coloring article makes clear, a magazine for Guys—post-adolescent boys who are finally old enough to drink, “build” wardrobes, and spend time alone with women, and finally hip enough to demonstrate “humor and sophistication” in the process. Aside from sometimes-interesting monthly columns by Ron Powers (television) and Mordecai Richler (books), and an occasional semi-meaty article (never the one on the celebrity cover-Guy), GQ strives to be no more (and no less) than The Voice of Real Guyhood.

The Voice of Real Guyhood is, above all, a personalized voice. Whether the subject is cars (“As I entered college, I plotted to establish my automotive identity”) or the history of boxer shorts (“As a member of the generation brought up in briefs, I’m here to say that boxers take some getting used to”), the GQ writer’s real focus is his own ever-interesting Guyself. The resultant effect is akin to that awful ironic self-awareness found among women writers who are always longing for bigger breasts and slimmer thighs. The idea seems to be that narcissism can be made charming by a selective display of self-mockery.

Even a serious subject like vasectomy is, in GQ, just another opportunity for some Guy-type fun. In an article devoid of information but long on the kind of elbow nudging, sexist humor and male anatomy jokes normally encountered only in regressive fourteen-year-old boys, someone named Terry Sullivan shared with fellow Guys the story of his vasectomy. The article’s title? “A Cut Below.” Get it? It was a writing performance for which Mr. Sullivan should have been sent to his room and denied TV privileges until he could control himself Guys being Guys, GQ paid him instead.

GQ‘s main Guy about town is Richard Merkin, author of the column Merkin on Style. Merkin’s method as a writer and cultural observer is to tell great chunks of his life story before reaching a negative judgment on, say, Pee-Wee Herman. It is necessary to understand this about Richard Merkin, otherwise it would make no sense at all that in a column supposedly about “two of New York’s most witty men’s shops,” he first recounts, at length, his sexual awakening: “I myself discovered women in 1950, just about the time the Bronx Bombers buried the Whiz Kids in the Autumn Classic. I am relatively certain that they—women, that is—were already in existence. . . .” Cute.

On those occasions when Merkin’s memory well runs dry, he falls back on that shameless journalistic device, the off-the-top-of-my-head collection, the pop-off column, the list—what Merkin refers to as a “helping of bouquets, brickbats, and plain old observations by Nobody Else but Me.”

In a recent column-list, Richard Merkin actually dragged out the dancing fat man stereotype: “You show me a fat man who dresses well and I’ll show you a deft and fabulous dancer.” Then, for reasons known only to him, Mr. Nobody Else but Me asked, “Hey, whatever happened to those marvelous, stuffy English names such as Archibald or Reginald or Algernon? Truthfully now, how long has it been since you were introduced to a guy named Cedric?” Since random changes of direction are the name of the game in these little exercises, Merkin suddenly lurched off into sports: “Now, if only some ball team with vision and reverence for tradition and continuity would bring back those wonderful old baggy flannel uniforms, maybe I could look forward to spring training with enthusiasm. . . . How about you?” How about me? Me, I think that if ball players took the field wearing “those wonderful old baggy flannel uniforms,” they’d look really dumb. But then, I’m not a Guy, so what do I know? Not only do I not see flannel as an expression of reverence, I don’t find entertaining the mere mention of the name Cedric.

If GQ is little more than a grinning celebration of Guyhood, at least it lacks pomposity. The same cannot be said for Esquire, a magazine that rejects Guyhood in favor of the “steadfast coverage of character realized.” Folks, Esquire is “intended for men who are no longer in the process of becoming men, but for men who are men.” It is a “publication of unswerving character, one that keeps alive all that is timeless and classic in a man’s life. . . .” It is a “magazine consumed with passion—for words, for pictures, for the good life intensely lived.” Most of all. Esquire is “a kind of sanctuary where we can share the male experience with likeminded friends, there to stimulate the mind and the senses.”

In case you haven’t guessed. Esquire is a suffocatingly self-conscious publication. It takes itself so seriously that it regularly gives out, with great fanfare, all kinds of self-styled awards. There is the Esquire Register, a long list of people saluted “for the roles they will play in molding America as we approach the turn of the century.” There is the Esky Award (complete with gold statuette), inaugurated in 1988 to honor “those who have truly hit the heights this year,” e.g., Ann Richards, the United Airlines terminal at O’Hare Airport, and “The Six-Button, Double-Breasted Suit.”

And not to be overlooked is Esquire‘s annual Women We Love issue, which is devoted to women with “wit and power and guts and glamour and mystery and depth” (coincidentally all the qualities that Esquire as a magazine lacks). So proud were Esquire‘s editors with their most recent list of women they love that they blurted, “We want to swim in this list. We want to swan dive into it. . . . ” That should have been a hint to any woman of wit, power, guts, glamour, mystery, and depth to beg, bribe, or sue her way off the list, because things could only go downhill from there. Esquire‘s homage to Audrey Hepburn—in its entirety: “Not content to sit around on her class.” Of dogsledder Susan Butcher: “[She] just turns our minds to mush.” And then there was Esquire‘s unforgettable tribute to actress Sonia Braga: “How do you say, ‘We’d like to drink your bathwater’ in Portuguese?” It makes you wonder, doesn’t it? Does this kind of stuff come under the heading of sharing “the male experience with like-minded friends”? Or is it supposed to be an expression of “character realized”? I have my own ideas on this. As Richard Merkin might say, you show me a Man whose idea of stimulating “the mind and the senses” is to talk about drinking a woman’s bathwater, and I’ll show you a Man who’s just a Guy.

When Esquire is not giving out awards no one cares about, or sweeping women off their feet with its sweet talk, it is devoting itself, by way of its Man At His Best section {Esquire‘s “anthem,” according to editor Eisenberg), to the most important things in a Man’s life: cars, clothes, food, booze, and home furnishings. If, for instance, “the good life intensely lived” requires knowing how and where to get “the world’s best beef jerky,” Esquire has the answer. (By mail order, of course, from Texas, at 12 bucks a pound. No Man At His Best is going to stop off at the 7-Eleven for his beef jerky.) For those with more sophisticated tastes. Esquire offers elaborate recipes, such as “Hare in the Style of Tuscan Hill Towns” (a horrifying concoction, by the way. Not even the lure of the good life intensely lived could attract me to a recipe that brings together, in the same dish, red wine, melted chocolate, and “a five pound hare”).

Unfortunately, it is not possible to discuss Esquire without discussing its most distinctive contributor, a columnist who, when he isn’t attempting to buy his own high school (“a dream come true”), is recalling the funeral of Elvis Presley (“and there was Elvis, dead . . . his eyes, of course, were closed”). I am talking about Bob Greene, the Man who wants to be a kid and is proud to say it.

The best way to describe Bob Greene as a writer is to say that he casts a whole new light on the Guys over at GQ. His style makes Richard Merkin seem like a breath of fresh air. And his regular wallows down memory lane can make some readers decide, “My God, I’d rather be hearing about Terry Sullivan’s vasectomy.” For Bob Greene, the preoccupations of Guyhood would be an emotional step forward. He isn’t in love with pseudo-adulthood; he’s in love with adolescence. He wants to “hang around the gym,” talk about his feelings, and be misunderstood by grown-ups.

Bob Greene’s writing is just one example of the triteness with which some men will depict their own lives. Esquire and GQ offer many variations of that example, but in the end the magazines accomplish the same thing: they trivialize manhood by glorifying something called “the male experience.” This can get tiresome.

But what is most striking to someone who isn’t a Man or a Guy is the essential gracelessness of these publications. They are big, good-looking, and dopey. For all their sheen, neither Esquire nor GQ has a clue as to what’s funny and what isn’t! They think power hair is serious business, while vasectomies are a laugh a minute. They believe that “sit around on her class” is an expression of wit, but see nothing funny in giving the same award to both a human being and a suit. And they don’t understand that talk of “character realized” is hilarious in a magazine that makes jokes about women’s bathwater. What’s next for these arbiters of style and sophistication—joy buzzers and whoopee cushions?