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Real 'Man'

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How to Be a Man: Scenes From a Protracted BoyhoodThomas Beller Three starsNorton, $14.95

IF you're expecting this to be the third book of original work by Beller, you'll be disappointed by the first page. There, the author admits, "Some of the essays in this book have previously appeared." By "some," he actually means 19 out of 21. Further dispiriting is the curious order of credits - a nice strong start with stints at The New Yorker, then wobbling a bit with the Times and Elle, and finally giving up - with essays culled from the New York Press and Men's Health. Is this a Portrait of an Artist in Decline? The literary equivalent of a Warrant greatest hits album?

One should not, however, judge a book by its source material. And this is no slapdash collection of hack-jobs; it's a thoughtful compilation with a theme by the editor of Open City. The tone starts off strong with a nice meditation on his 1977 Thunderbird, in which he concludes, "Perhaps it's just an allegory for why one ought to not have a car in Manhattan." Allowing for the book title's theme to connect the pieces, Beller offers his relevant age at the opening of each piece - he is 26 years old when he accompanies his mother to the Oscars, 10 when he plays with his chemistry set and 34 when a girlfriend buys him a birthday suit at Helmut Lang.

For a writer and an editor, Beller keeps fairly active. He's been a drummer (29), a bagel store worker (27), a bike messenger (38) and a basketball junkie (37). At 30, he saves some bookshelves from Shakespeare and Company and writes, "How to dismantle? I took a few stabs at it with my screwdriver, but it was like trying to dig up Sixth Avenue with a Swiss Army knife."

Finally, at the age of 39, he lets a woman move in with him, and he builds her an armoire as an expression of his commitment. "First you build an armoire under pressure, and the next thing you're getting married! It's not supposed to be under duress!"

Two pieces here break abruptly from the hyper-aware New York-centric tone. In both, Beller is clearly on assignment: In one he reports on the breakup of the founders of Nerve (36), in the other he visits a sex-addiction clinic in Arizona (34). He might have just said that his mid-30s were spent wasting away on dreary magazine stories - you can almost feel this junior-aristo of New York letters rolling his eyes as he writes, "For all the signs of fun and relaxation, the general mood at Nerve is extremely focused."

There are also some curious omissions; no overt mention of his friendship with the late Rob Bingham, and nothing about his career as a writer or editor. And discretion is the better part of valor when it comes to saying anything about his relationship with Parker Posey. A gentleman writing a cherry-picking tell-all - perhaps that answers his own questioning title.

Copyright 2004 NYP Holdings, Inc. All rights reserved.

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