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“Fleishman Is in Trouble” was the hot New York novel of summer 2019. What was Fleishman’s trouble? As you might have guessed: a Manhattan white man’s midlife crisis and sexual awakening. Seems like a million years ago, doesn’t it? It seems that way to Taffy Brodesser-Akner as well, because she’s written a short story about Fleishman set in the Manhattan summer of 2020. It’s called “Fleishman Is in Lockdown,” and it follows Fleishman through his days in a hospital where COVID has driven doctors and nurses to urgent and unlikely couplings, and… there’s a lot more, and some of it’s almost funny, but mostly it grabs you and holds you. You don’t need to have read the book to get it, but if you haven’t, it might just encourage you to do some — what shall we call it — “remedial reading.” To read “Fleishman Is in Lockdown,” click here.
Here’s the first paragraph:
Toby Fleishman awoke one morning inside the city he’d lived in all his adult life and which was suddenly somehow now crawling with women who wanted him. Not just any women, but women who were self-actualized and independent and knew what they wanted. Women who weren’t needy or insecure or self- doubting, like the long-ago prospects of his long-gone youth—meaning the women he thought of as prospects but who never gave him even a first glance. No, these were women who were motivated and available and interesting and interested and exciting and excited. These were women who would not so much wait for you to call them one or two or three socially acceptable days after you met them as much as send you pictures of their genitals the day before. Women who were open-minded and up for anything and vocal about their desires and needs and who used phrases like “put my cards on the table” and “no strings attached” and “I need to be done in ten because I have to pick up Bella from ballet.” Women who would fuck you like they owed you money, was how our friend Seth put it.
This novel would be a bore if it were just a catalogue of the marital complaints and sexual triumphs of a short 41-year-old Manhattan doctor who suddenly finds himself Tinder’s swordsman of the year. The surprise comes soon after Toby has made the case against Rachel, his mega-successful bitch ex-wife — he’s not the narrator. Libby is. She’s known Toby for 20 years. And she’s a writer. A writer very much in the manner of Taffy Brodesser-Akner, who has, in recent years, revolutionized profile writing at the New York Times Magazine.
Correction: Libby was a writer.
Like every talented woman who has had a job in the last millennium, she knows all about sexism in the workplace: Sexism at work: “Whatever kind of woman you are, even when you’re a lot of kinds of women, you’re still always just a woman, which is to say you’re always a little bit less than a man.”
But as a writer for a men’s magazine, she encountered a more sophisticated, media-centric sexism: “This was the only way to get someone to listen to a woman — to tell her story through a man; Trojan horse yourself into a man, and people would give a shit about you.”
So Libby quit. She dedicated herself to her marriage — “We had a great sex life, and then we had a regular one, and then (as in now) we were in the wilderness” — and her children. Settled in New Jersey, she is generally satisfied; the only thing that would make her happier is if she could write a novel. And it comes to pass, after a long absence, that Toby reappears with rants about Rachel, stories of his adventures, and a phone overflowing with photos of “G-string and a$$ cleavage and underboob and sideboob and just straight-up boob and all the parts of a woman he never dared dream he would encounter in a person who was three-dimensional.” And Libby writes a book — this book, a book by a woman who seems to tell the story of a man but is really telling the story of two other women, herself and Toby’s wife. The revelation that she’s the narrator is brilliantly timed; just when you were convinced that Toby is the victim — a divorce lawyer tells him, “You’re the wife” — you’re reading a different, much more compelling book. [To read an excerpt, click here. To buy the paperback from Amazon, click here. For the Kindle edition, click here. For the audiobook, click here.]
Libby has a clear eye on subjects that will resonate with every New Yorker who is struggling to make do on a six-figure salary: private schools, social hierarchies, fitness strategies. She is merciless on the insensitivity of the rich. And if you’re reading the book on a deck in Southampton overlooking a lawn that could pass for a putting green, turn immediately to page 105. Is that you?
Taffy Brodesser-Akner is a unicorn at the Times Magazine; her pieces are long and yet incisive, and you don’t wish them shorter. Novels are different; they benefit from editing. Caveat lector: at 350 pages, this novel cries out to be shorter by 50 pages, maybe more. The sex gets tiresome. You may be tempted to wonder what all the excitement was about. You would not be wrong to do so. But don’t abandon it. About halfway through, feel free to skim. Along the way, there are tart, smart observations and exchanges that will make you turn down the corner of several dozen pages, and at the end, you will be rewarded with some hard-won, beautifully composed wisdom.
A FEW OF TAFFY BRODESSER-AKNER’S BEST MAGAZINE PROFILES
She wanted to eat the world, but it was just too big. She tried desperately to find moderation. She read everything she could get her hands on. She lived for as long as she possibly could. It is really something that we choose a person’s death as the occasion to write about her, when that is the time when she is more subjective than she ever was in life.
I wanted to talk about Mr. Cooper’s own sobriety, and how it was reflected in Jackson’s drug and alcohol addiction. I wanted to talk about fatherhood — how Mr. Cooper has both lost his father and become a father in the last few years — since fathers haunt the movie. I wanted to talk about love. But he wasn’t having it.
Listen, he said to me. I seem nice. He gets that I’m just doing my job. But he’s not going to get personal with me. He has to promote his movie — he wants to promote his movie — but beyond that? What would telling me anything truly personal really do? “I don’t necessarily see the upside of it. You know? I don’t.”
Gwyneth Paltrow disrupted the contract between the celebrity and the civilian who is observing her. In a typical women’s magazine profile, the implicit pact is that the celebrity will not make the woman feel bad by implying that the woman could have what the celebrity has if only she would work: “It’s all in my genes, what can I say!” the celebrity proclaims. But G.P. was different. She would talk openly about the food habits and exercise obsessions that allowed her to look the way she did. “It’s so much easier to sit home and not exercise and criticize other people,” she told Elle magazine in 2011. “My life is good,” she wrote on Goop’s website, “because I am not passive about it. I want to nourish what is real, and I want to do it without wasting time.” People think they want celebrities to speak honestly, but we’re not really that happy when they do.
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